WMD’S, Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte, NC- 11/6
Throughout the years, I have seen Keller Williams in numerous capacities. I have seen him in tiny bars and giant festivals. I have seen him alone (of course!) and with String Cheese as a backing band. I have seen him sit in with Leftover Salmon; I have seen him share the stage with Larry and Jenny Keel. Now, I have seen Keller in yet another context. On November 6, at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keller became the rhythm guitarist/lead singer in a rock and roll band. The band is the WMD'S, the show is one worth seeing.
Accompanied by Gibb Droll on guitar, Keith Moseley (SCI) on bass and Jeff Sipe on drums, Keller's music took on a whole new energy and feel. I am used to hearing Keller enter stage before seeing him. Usually, using his wireless system, he is playing for us before leaving the quiescence of backstage. He walks on stage, barefoot and smiling, and already well into some new funk jam. It was therefore interesting to see him take the stage with his band mates this night, looking like any other rock and roll band. (Granted Keller was still barefoot.) They came out, they tuned up their instruments, they smiled and waved to the crowd, who were yelling and smiling right back. They played the first notes for was to be a long and fun night, full of surprises and energy.
I knew Gibb Droll by name only from the Gibb Droll band. That was the extent of my previous familiarity with him. Well after one night with him, he might just be my new favorite guitar player. At times he sounded like Jerry, at others he sounded like Steve Kimock. He played melodic licks over Keller’s strong rhythms. He took tasteful solos over breakdowns. He flatpicked with the greats when the band went acoustic. He played country, rock, funk and reggae like a seasoned pro. And of course, he can peak a solo like so few guitar players out there can do so well, with power and strength.
At one point, they all put down their electric instruments, including Keller who is surprisingly good with a Whammy Bar. Keith switched over to the acoustic bass, Gibb to a guitar and Keller pulled out a mini 12 string guitar from which he had removed several of the strings. He seemed to have it strung like a mandolin, and if that was what he was going for, then he pulled it off nicely. They played a few songs and then went back to the electrics and the rock and roll.
The band played a variety of covers along with Keller songs, old and new. As with anything Keller, there was a lot of Dead stuck in there at different points in the night. Keller had a microphone hooked up to pedals and effects that he used for anything from singing funny sounds to simulating a talk box. The band started one piece and Keller was at the mic singing the melody to "Dark Star." Then the band went into "Brown Eyed Women," which they played in its entirety. It was the only time of the night that Keith took over the role of lead vocalist and it was a great fit. They also did a stirring rendition of the Butthole Surfer’s "Pepper." You know, “Falling like an avalanche coming down a mountain.” They played a very cool funky version of "Girl from Ipanema" and a great country reggae rock version on Yonder Mountain String Band’s "New Horizons." Gibb had already showed us that he could flatpick during the acoustic portion of the show. But this song took it to new levels. The song started with an intro that sounded almost like "The Other One," and it kept that feel as the song began. Then suddenly they were two-stepping it and it was a hoe-down and people were loving it. When it got to Gibb’s solo, he stepped in like it was all that he knew how to do and he was flatpicking it on his electric. Then his solo shifted and led the band back into the reggae style that it had started with. It was a thing of beauty and may have been the best solo of the night.
The second set opened with all the boys walking onto stage and picking up bass guitars. I was hoping for a rendition of Spinal Tap’s "Big Bottom," but instead they played "Novelty Song" where Keller instructs us to “tune out the words and focus on the bass.” Each player approached the instrument the way that you would have expected him to. Keith held down the bass-bass part. Keller took over the funky chordal rhythms-bass and Gibb noodled between and jammed along with the lead-bass. Of course, all the while on the kit is the rock wall that is Jeff Sipe. The guy is a machine. He is everything to everyone. He is matching melody lines while holding down the rhythm and playing off the bass. It was easy to see why Keller had picked his band. He was lucky to get them; they are seasoned players all the way around. And whether they were all on bass, playing acoustic instruments or taking on funky Keller songs like "Freeker by the Speaker," they made it look easy.
This is a new and interesting role for Keller to put himself into. I was impressed with how well it worked. After String Cheese recorded Breathe with Keller, I read an interview with Bill Nershi. He made a comment about what a good band director Keller is. He hears everything in his head and he is good at helping everyone to find it and bring it out. This did not appear to be the case with the WMD’S. It seemed as if he had found himself some excellent musicians, brought them all into the same room, and had joined them as a member of the band, rather than as a director and it was a pleasure to see him get to be one of the boys for a change. After over a decade of touring solo, it must be nice for him to have a safety net and constant inspirational drive joining him onstage night after night. I hope that this lineup inspires him to push the boundaries of his music even further in the future.