Keller Williams played two very different sets of music at the Park West in Chicago on Friday, January 17th. The first was a familiar, one man band version of the multifaceted performer, but for the second set Keller lead an extremely entertaining funk band that appropriately calls themselves More Than a Little.
The first set presented a comfortable side of Keller with a mix of newer originals along with some old favorites. “Doobie in my Pocket”, “Best Feeling”, and “Floating on Freshies” showcased Keller’s knack for layering sounds with multiple instruments and looping them all into one gumbo of goodness. But by the time Keller arrived at “Porta Potty”, he decided to simplify. There is something to be said for a man who can hold a room’s attention with just his lyrics and a guitar. The half filled room was enamored by his presence. Looking around, I could see jaws ajar as we watched this man do what he does best.
Keller’s one man band show always has an element of simplicity to it. He executes his unique style with such ease that it seems like there is little to no effort whatsoever put into his work. But don’t let his laid back vibe and shit eating grin fool you. This guy’s timing is more on point than a metronome and his ability to layer melodies, basslines, and vocals is unlike anyone else out there.
Williams peaked his first set with the ever entertaining story of how “Gate Crashers Suck” that segued into “Scarlet Begonias”. This classic Grateful Dead cover included a blazing vocal trumpet solo that somehow fit the song perfectly. The jam eventually started to tease “Fire on the Mountain” only to break into the circus performance that is “Freak Show”. Everyone in the room finally seemed ready to let loose as they joined along with Keller as he closed out the set by journeying back into “Fire on the Mountain”.
As I mentioned earlier, second set felt like a completely different show. When the lights turned low, Keller danced his way to the middle of the stage. He was predictably barefoot, yet looking sharper than ever in an exquisitely tailored grey suite. His back up band, More Than a Little, wore all black as followed him out onto the Park West’s sage.
Keller’s band that night consisted of Gerard Johnson on keyboards, EJ Shaw on bass, and Toby Fairchild holding down the drums. These three shiny headed hairless men probably had the best view in the house since they spent all night posted up behind vocalists Sugar Davis and Tonya Jackson. The unity from each member donning all black made Keller stand out like a preacher in front of a choir.
The music of the second set kicked off with a full band jam that set a precedent for the rest of the night. Williams’ backup singers called out to to their leader, “Hey Keller,” demanding his attention as he showed off his best dance moves “…shut the FUNK up!” Keller froze as if this caught him by surprise.
Needless to say, it was hysterically funny to watch Keller Williams mesh his laid-back, don’t-take-yourselves-too-seriously vibe with a sophisticated five piece ensemble. But right from the first song you could tell everyone was on the same page in Keller’s Book of Funk. This comical juxtaposition continued until the end of the show.
There is something about “Kidney in a Cooler” that regresses Keller fans to a younger state. Yet, to hear it performed by a funk band was wildly entertaining. I can’t imagine what was like for a soul/gospel singer Sugar Davis to learn this tune and then deliver it every night with such conviction. It almost makes want to buy this tall glass of chocolate milk a double decker, double wide trailer.
Part of the reason Keller was touring with More Than a Little was to support his recently released live album, Funk. The Talking Heads’ cover “Once in a Life Time” seemed much less beatnik than the album’s version. Its strong bassline forced me to move my hips, but by this time the Park West was packed, almost to the point where it was uncomfortable. Trying to roam around the venue was virtually impossible without making others inhospitable, so I decided to watch the rest of the show from the venue’s horseshoe balcony. From this vantage point I couldn’t help noticed a neglected disco ball that quietly spun above the center of the room, yet the show was hitting full force.
Sugar Davis and Tonya Jackson kicked off their high heeled shoes to get themselves on Keller’s level during “Sampsons Wine”. This mashup of two delicious songs had Keller calling the shots as they flowed from one song to the other. One of the strongest jams of the set was “I Told You I Was Freaky”. This Flight of the Conchords’ cover captured the weird side of Keller, an element that has never faltered over the years. More Than a Little somehow understands Keller’s freaky vibe and together the group worked their way into Keller’s “Let’s Jam”, just before they slammed into a heady version of Rick Jame’s “Mary Jane”.
The night finally came to a close with a one song encore. Fan favorite, “Freaker by the Speaker” almost felt like a moment the whole room was waiting for. The group’s reggae rendition of this tune helped raise everyone’s freak flag high just before they were pushed out into the cold Chicago night.
Overall, this show’s second set put the fun back in funk. More Than a Little is a perfect name for the energy this group adds to Keller’s already entertaining live shows.