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.
A long Chicago winter had finally concluded and warm breezes teased us as we hurried through the streets of Lincoln Park that Friday night. Rico and I were on our way to see a funk band. We stopped for dinner on the way so we were running a little late. By the time we arrived at the venue, we were greeted by a sheet of paper taped to the front entrance that read: SHOW SOLD OUT.
This was unexpected. Yet the more we thought about it, the more we felt like armatures. We decided to split up in search of extra tickets. Rico headed east and I ventured west.
For the first time in my life I found myself outside a sold out concert without a ticket. Awkwardly holding my finger in the air, I approached every passerby with three little words, “Got any extras?”
Most folks shook their heads no and some even wished me luck. One lady in a fur coat stared me down like I was crazy, obviously unaware of the sold out concert taking place just up the street. With each rejection the idea of giving up grew a little larger in the back of my mind.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single scalper trying to rip off unprepared concert goers like myself. I definitely had enough cash to cover the cost of the ticket and then some. I am not sure how much Rico was willing to part with, but I knew he was better at making those types of back alley deals than I was.
My focus turned to the yellow cabs dropping people off in front of the venue. They seemed like a good bet, but time marched on and I was still ticketless. Eventually the number of cabs delivering potential extra ticket holders started to dwindle and I was began entertaining new plans for my Friday night.
I met back up with Rico to discuss the possibility of giving up. I knew the opening act had already begun to play based on the lack of activity in the venue’s lobby, which we could see through the clear glass doors that were guarded by security. Rico insisted we give it one last try before we drank away our ticket money at the closest bar.
So, once again, we split up.
This time around I chose to linger around the venue. Eventually, I lost sight of Rico and decided to head around the corner to where the band’s tour bus was parked. I debated gathering up the courage to knock on the door with the odd chance of connecting with someone who could pull some strings. Surely they would have some sympathy for a cute girl in a short skirt. But before I got a chance to pimp myself out, I noticed a middle-aged couple hastily crossing the street towards the venue.
The woman’s long brown hair bounced in the wind while her escort’s shiny bald head reflected the streetlights above. They didn’t seem like your typical concert goers. In fact, they looked like money. Her leather cowboy boots were the real deal and his pinky ring screamed bling.
I approached them with a warm smile, “Any chance you guys have extra tickets? The show is sold out.”
They stopped immediately. The woman’s eyes got big as she soaked me in, “Actually, I think we each have a plus one on the guest list, don’t we?” She looked up at the man intently.
I beamed. “I have a friend that needs a ticket too. He’s just around the corner. And we have cash,” I was starting to get ahead of myself as hope grew inside my chest, “How much for the pair?”
“Oh, no no no darlin’,” She shook her head, “We could never take money for something we ain’t payin’ for!”
The man half smiled at me as he put his hand behind the woman’s back, motioning her towards the front entrance.
I practically ran to find Rico. “I got us tickets… for FREE!” the excitement exploded out of me. I had never received a free ticket to a concert before in my life, especially in this fashion. Back in the day I used to sneak into shows and festivals, but this was different. I was practically high off my good fortune.
We found the couple as they were checking in at the box office. Rico and I were still in awe as they each handed us a small blue raffle ticket. We thanked them profusely as the four of us walked through the doors and entered an already heated venue.
“Now you two have fun,” the woman flashed her million dollar smile and gave us a wink. The couple hurried into the show, leaving us alone in an almost empty lobby.
Still in shock, I turned to Rico, “I can’t believe that just happened!”
Dumpstaphunk played the House of Blues in Chicago on Friday, July 19th as Phish’s official late night show. In all honesty, this show was the highlight of my evening, especially since Phish was forced to cancel early due to a nasty storm that swept through the city. Along with opening act, The Revivalist, Dumpstaphunk threw down one top notch funky dance party that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
Chicago actually holds a special place in Dumpstaphunk history. Drummer Nikki Glaspie played her first show as an official member of Dumpstaphunk in Chicago just two short years ago. I got a chance to talk with Nikki before her show on Friday and let’s just say this chick is FIERCE! Her addition to the current lineup has elevated this band’s energy to a whole other stratosphere and her 15 minute drum solo Friday night completely blew me away.
Today, Dumpstaphunk will be releasing their latest album, Dirty Word, and this is the band’s first studio album since Nikki Glaspie joined the group. In the past she has helped produce, arrange, and record tracks in the studio for many other projects and artists, but Dirty Word is the first album where Nikki recorded material that she had also written.
Dumpstaphink is basically a super group of funk musicians, and Dirty Word showcases the musical range this band brings to the table. While each member has a notable musical background in funk, Nikki Glaspie is the only member not rooted in the New Orleans funk scene. Needless to say, her vocals pack quite a punch and her influence on the new album is obvious. ”I brought some of the rock element to the album. Whereas Nick Daniels brought the blues element and Ivan (Neville) brought a rock element too but a different type, almost like a Who-ish type vibe, and I brought just straight hard rock.”
Coming up with new material this day in age is often a reflection of what is already out there in the world of music. By staying true its origins, Dumpstaphunk’s mix of styles has brought funk music to a whole other level. ”We wanted people to know we are more than just a funk band,” explains Glaspie, ”We can play blues if we want to or we can play rock if we want to.”
Dirty Word was recorded in New Orleans and took about a year to complete. One of the most distinct difference between Dumphstaphunk and other funk bands is they lack a horn section. Luckily, artists Trombone Shorty and Skerik were close by to supply the horns for the album’s third track “I Wish You Would”. ”Skerik is an amazing tenor saxophone player, he’s sick!” says Nikki. They also added Rebirth Brass Band to mix for ”Raise the House,” a song that was meant to blow everyone away in true Mardi Gras fashion.
Dirty Word also contains some pretty notable contributions from artists Ani DiFranco and Art “Papa Funk” Neville. The album’s sixth track, “If I’m in Luck” is a dirty nasty Bettie Davis cover where Glaspie sings vocals and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers guest stars on bass. “It is so different than what Dumpstaphunk normally does or what people think we normally do,” explains Nikki “That was actually what we wanted for the record.” The band has been covering the tune since Nikki joined back in 2011. Just like it does in their live show, ”If I’m in Luck” adds quite a sassy flavor to the Dumpstaphunk catalog.
There is a certain stigma that surrounds funk music, which often gets snubbed because it goes against most of what pop music stands for. When asked about the album’s title, Glaspie explains how it is almost the perfect description of funk music from a funk band’s perspective. ”There is no category in the Grammys for funk,” she points out. “When we register our songs on BMI or ASCAP, there is no category to register our songs as funk songs. You know it’s like it’s not even recognized as a genre of music within the music industry. So, it’s like a dirty word.” The irony is that disco, house, EDM, and Hip-hop are all rooted in funk. Therefore without funk music, most of the pop music today would not exist and pop music is something Nikki Glaspie knows all too much about.
Nikki was fortunate to land a gig touring in an all-girl band backing up pop superstar Beyoncé. While touring with one of the most successful artists in the world is a dream come true for most musicians, it just wasn’t her thing. “Literally, if I had to play “Irreplaceable” one more time, I would have shot myself in the foot.” Nikki further explains, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Glaspie was at a crossroads where she felt she needed to be true to her art. Playing someone else’s music in a genre she could care less about no longer appealed to her. “I wanted to spread my wings. You know it was like I was super contained in that environment and I had to play the same thing over and over again. There was just no room for growth.”
Moving forward was a big step for her career. Funk music seemed to pull her in a direction where she knew she would enjoy being challenged. “I am a funkateer first and foremost, but I am also a rocker,” explains Nikki. Dumpstaphunk has given her a creative outlet where she can perform the same type of music she would want to listen to and see live. In other words, this is her dream job.
Nikki Glaspie has now been touring with Dumpstaphunk virtually nonstop for the past two years. While it might seem like a huge leap from the all-female pop band she traveled the globe with, Nikki didn’t find adjusting all that difficult. “We all have a certain kinship living together on the road. It’s not as much of a difference as people would think or maybe as it would be in a different type of work environment. But because we are all musicians, and kind of all do the same thing, then the gender thing doesn’t really matter.”
Dumpstaphunk will continue to tour nonstop in support of the new album, which drops today. Download here.