Former Deadhead now a one-man-jam band: Keller Williams coming to State College

Keller Williams

For years, guitar player and singer Keller Williams couldn’t afford to hire accompanying band members, so he put technology to work for him by using live looping of multiple instruments to put on his one-man-jam act.

Williams is bringing his music that combines elements of bluegrass, folk, alternative rock, reggae, electronica/dance, jazz, funk, and other genres to The State Theatre tomorrow at 9 p.m.

Thanks to his embrace of technology, nothing is canned and no two live performances are ever alike.

“He is always a popular artist at The State Theatre,” said Karen Gregg, executive director.

In an interview last week, Williams told the Mirror that he takes two guitars to his concerts — his Martin and a backup.

But he also takes along a bass that sits in the play position on a stand and a drum sampler, both connected to a hand-held synthesizer that enables him to “live loop” those background instruments that he plays into his concert.

“Nothing is pre-recorded,” he said. “I tap these taps (on the drum machine) and out come these samples of real recorded drums and they play in a loop. It’s all played on stage so it’s live. … That background music makes it danceable.”

The importance of that goes back to the 1990s when Williams was playing restaurants, coffee shops and pool halls.

“At the end of the song, they would kindly ask me to move my microphone so they could take a shot at the pool table,” he said. “They weren’t listening to me and I wasn’t listening to them.”

He wanted to get their attention with jamming, but he couldn’t afford other musicians, so he started looping. At first, he lugged around more instruments, including a keyboard station, an electronic vibrophone, a couple of drums and a slide station. But since he mostly flies to concert venues now, he scaled back.

At 47, Williams still is jamming solo and “hopefully making people dance,” he said.

He says his fan base is an interesting mix, including some who have “hung with me” since the early days of collaborations with other artists. He said he picked up a number of very young fans in the mid-2000s when “there was a lot of teenager drop offs” at his concerts.

“I know that because 10 years later I’m meeting people who said they were dropped off by their moms at my concerts and it was their first concert,” Williams said.

And, today, a lot of people catch him at a festival and fall in love with his music.

“My shows are very chatty, very social,” he said. “That brings out some folks who know what they’re getting and they know it’s not going to be stuffy.”

Williams released two albums earlier this year, putting him at two dozen releases since he started in 1994. One, called “Sync,” was recorded with a band, KWahtro, that he assembled and toured with last year.

He had started work on the other album, “Raw,” in 2011, but he didn’t like the way it turned out initially and went on to other projects for a time before resurrecting it for release this year.

His next album will be a compilation of instrumental songs he has played for two decades called “Sans” that still needs to be mixed and mastered, he said.

While music is his life, Williams doesn’t always take himself too seriously.

“First and foremost, the thing you need to know about me is that my career revolves around me entertaining myself first,” he said. “That’s where it begins. If it doesn’t succeed there, it stops.

If it’s not going to be fun, I’m not going to do it.”

That is reflected in “Missing Remote” from the Sync album where he sings “I found the missing remote right there where the mayo goes.” On Raw, the DEA, the IRS, the FBI and the ATF must have broken up some kind of years-long party for Williams to write the brief, “Short Ballad of Camp Zoe.”

“Those songs kind of wrote themselves,” he said. “The ‘Ballad of Camp Zoe’ is 100 percent true. It’s a short ballad because it seems that what went on there could have gone on for a long time.”

An internet search shows that such a place was confiscated by federal authorities in Missouri; it had been a popular hippie camp, especially among former fans of the iconic band The Grateful Dead.

Williams was once such a Deadhead.

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Williams started taking music lessons about the age of 8. But he was on the swim and other teams and “didn’t care that much about music.”

“I always pretended to play the guitar as a kid,” he said. “As a teenager, I was getting into skateboarding, punk rock and Walkman cassettes.”

That, he said led to his affinity for college rock, or alternative music popular on college campuses in the 1980s. That led to REM, when he taught himself chords, and, that was followed by an obsession with the Grateful Dead before he was 20. Other lesser known, but critically acclaimed artists influenced him as well.

“Mix this all together and out comes my naked hippie self,” he said.

He said he had an epiphany in his late teens when he realized he could make more money in three hours playing club gigs than three days as a temporary laborer cleaning up mortar between cinder blocks. Part of a temporary workforce, he would show up at different job sites making $3.35 an hour.

“I’m a teenager. I’m lucky to have this job, according to them,” he said.

But then he played a gig one weekend and made more money.

“That was my aha moment,” he said. “As lame as that sounds, I realized that there’s something here where I don’t have to go to work. I love playing music.”

And, it’s not work.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.