Keller Williams, Shoreline Ballroom, Hilton Head Island, SC- 12/31
Keller Williams’ appeal has always been embedded in his persona of a Deadhead hippie guy who creates playful music with comical lyrics. By mixing clusters of acoustic guitar notes, various trumpet-like noises, thick bass lines, cowbells, keyboards, and whatever other instruments are in reach via his digital looping device, Keller has been able to develop a sound that is completely original.
Some of the most interesting aspects of Keller’s career have been when his one man band style is placed into the context of a more traditional group, either through a band of his own creation or an already established group. A few of Keller’s most notable collaborations include the many Keller Williams Incidents that have happened over the years with String Cheese Incident, his bluegrass project Keller & the Keels, his Grateful Dead tribute band Grateful Grass, and most recently his first proper band with Keith Moseley, Gibb Droll and Jeff Sipe. On New Year’s Eve, fans were able to see the various facets of keller's approach when he performed solo and with his latest band Grunge Grass, a trio that covers 1990’s alternative music bluegrass style.
The Shoreline Ballroom on Hilton Head Island was dressed to the nines for the event, including a video screen behind the stage and Chinese lanterns dangling from the ceiling (hopefully these lanterns will become a permanent fixture for the venue). Keller opened the evening as a solo artist and delivered an all-request set designed by his fans via email. I loved this idea of his supporters having a voice in what music Keller was going to play. As it turned out, fans chose music ranging from Keller’s early work to a wide variety of cover songs from different artists new and old. “Breathe,” “Kidney in the Cooler,” “Yoni,” and “Bob Rules” were all represented as classic Keller tunes during the set. These songs sounded invigorated and the fans were treated to some nice visual representations of the lyrics on the projection screen above stage, including a few hilarious images of Bob Barker during “Bob Rules.” The true highlights of the set were interpretations of other people’s songs, “Til The Morning Comes” and “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead, “Scent of a Mule” by Phish, “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News, “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles, and the set closing “What I Got” by Sublime all sounded refreshing due to the Kellerized arrangements they were given.
After a short break Keller returned with Claude Arthur on standup Bass and Jay Sterling on slide Dobro to play an assortment of familiar grunge compositions. While I enjoyed hearing the songs I grew up listening to being given new life, one of my friends at the concert made a very apt observation. She said, “It would be a lot better if they were playing true bluegrass. All acoustic around one microphone Del McCoury style.” I thought about that statement as Keller was playing and I soon came to to agree with her. The thing that made Keller’s other bluegrass projects so exciting and fun to listen to is that they were closer to bluegrass than any other form of music. But Grunge Grass sounded instead like soft country pop renditions of hard rocking songs. The Keller & the Keels record Grass featured acoustic picking and up-tempo knee slapping arrangements. While Grateful Grass (Keller with Keith Moseley on bass and Jeff Austin on mandolin) wasn’t quite traditional bluegrass, the music of the Grateful Dead lends itself to jamgrass interpretation much better than the loud and sometimes noisy music of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. It was fun to hear Grunge Grass play, but I’d like to see the concept taken to the next level and presented in a more traditional style a la the Pickin’ on series of albums that covered the music of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and other classic rock bands.
About fifteen minutes before the New Year Keller came back onstage to welcome in 2009 with his third set of music. Keller’s jamming built itself to a crescendo and developed into the apropos “Auld Lange Syne” as the clock struck midnight. People kissed, balloons dropped, and Keller took a shot of booze onstage. My favorite Keller song, “Celebrate Your Youth” quickly followed and was a perfect choice for his first song of the year, providing a perfect message for everyone in attendance regardless of age. Solid versions of “Best Feeling” and “Freeker by the Speaker” led to the musical highpoint of the concert. The Grateful Dead’s “Help on the Way” was enhanced by Jay Sterling and Claude Arthur who rejoined Keller onstage for more rocking and impassioned contributions than during the prior set. A wonderful version of “Franklin’s Tower” was the climax of the night. Keller’s playing and singing then intertwined with Sterling and Arthur’s musicianship as “Franklin’s” segued into a reggae version of “Freekshow” by Ani Difranco. This portion of the evening was worth the price of admission and was a true representation of the unique stamp Keller puts on music. New Year’s Eve should always be a fun event and every Keller Williams concert is just that, so as 2008 slipped into 2009 it was nice treat to go dancing on the island and “celebrate my youth”.