Keller Williams out of the folk, feelin' the 'Funk'

Keller Williams
Keller Williams
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers
| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Keller Williams' new CD, “Funk” is being touted as something of a surprise. Considering that Williams is known for playing acoustic music that often has leaned toward folk, that's understandable.

But to Williams, the “Funk” album, which was culled from a series of 2012 concerts with a band that includes bass, drums, keyboards and a pair of female singers, takes him back to one of his core stylistic influences.

“It feels very normal and a natural progression,” says Williams, who performs Dec. 27 at Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale. “It's always kind of been there for me, that right-hand rhythm of keeping that backbeat. I've always wanted to create some kind of dance vibe, even in the solo-acoustic realm. It doesn't feel like a departure for me at all.”

In fact, funk is one of Williams' earliest musical loves.

“I lived just south of Washington, D.C. (growing up), and in the early '80s Chuck Brown and Troublefunk were these massive go-go bands,” Williams says, mentioning a funk-influenced style of music that became particularly identified with the Washington, D.C., area, beginning in the 1960s.

In high school, he was in the marching band, “and all the kick drummers, the band director and all of the drummers and percussion, everyone was super, super into the go-go (sound).

“I want to say that's probably where it really banged me upside the head, because I was so immersed in it and feeling the actual kick drum and the roto toms,” he says.

Circumstances took Williams and his music in directions that made some of his influences — including funk — less obvious than they might have otherwise been.

“When I was a teenager, when I was first starting to play, the idea was always to play in bands, play with groups, have a camaraderie, have this certain connection through music,” he says. “That was always the idea. Then it came around to making a living at it, and I couldn't afford to be in a band.”

So, Williams, 43, started out playing solo acoustic, releasing a debut album, “Freek,” in 1994. But it wasn't long before he started to stretch the solo form, using live looping onstage to create other instrumental parts and give the illusion that he was accompanied by multiple musicians.

He gained an early following opening for jam bands, and as his popularity grew, he soon started headlining, using live looping on some songs and playing solo acoustic on others.

But, as time went on, the pull of playing with other musicians took hold. Since the mid-2000s, he has formed several band projects, including Keller & The Keels (a bluegrass project with husband and wife Larry and Jenny Keel); a group with bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe that toured under the band name the WMDs; a collaboration with the Travelin' McCourys (backing band for bluegrass legend Del McCoury); and now, the funk band, which is called More Than A Little.

Williams says More Than A Little came together quite casually, and originally planned just to play a half-dozen concerts between Christmas and New Year's of last year that would be recorded for what became the “Funk” album.

“Funk” culls 10 of the best songs from the year-end 2012 shows and includes Williams' originals (reworked into a full-band funk format) and covers of songs by Rick James (“Mary Jane”), the Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”) and Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”). The performances on “Funk” are fun, light-hearted and just a bit quirky.

Having continued to play shows this year, More Than A Little has booked a tour for January, February and March and will have an expanded repertoire for that outing.

“We have definitely put in different songs, my original music as well as covers,” Williams says. “We're putting in a whole bunch of new stuff. The stuff from the (‘Funk') record will definitely be peppered into the sets. They're just fun songs to play. But there's definitely a lot of new material that I'm excited about.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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