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.
For many jamband fans, Keller Williams was like a gateway drug and over the years we have watched him solidify his place in the scene. These days Keller is throwing down with a full funky band that calls themselves More Than a Little after a classic Keller tune. Their recently collaborative release, conveniently titled Funk, is made up of ten live recordings that display exactly what this project is all about. The four piece band, along with some sassy female vocals, showcases a side of Keller that many fans have been waiting to hear.
The album Funk kicks off with a vocal bass line that gets everyone on Keller’s level. It is followed up by backup singers, keys, an actual bass and live drums that hit you upside the head right from the get go. The first tune of the album is a comical Flight of the Conchords cover, “I Told You I Was Freaky”. As the first track continues, shit gets weird, and you are taken into the crazy domain of freak funk. It serves as a warning to all that this album is going to be filthy nasty, so be prepared to get weird.
The second tune rolls out of the first with a jazzy jam thick with keys and drum breaks. The Keller classic “More Than a Little” is true to its title. This tune is the definition of what this project is all about. Keller leads the group as they slink from one verse to the next, eventually agreeing in unison: “Now that’s funky!”
Keller’s band taps into the roots of funk and the album captures the energy of their live performance perfectly. ”I Feel Love” starts with a disco tease of Madonna’s ”Vogue”. Keller then takes the lead, calling the shots as the soulful vocalists follow suit. The tune continues to hopscotch between disco and soul before it finally lands in an era of disco funk and settles in for a nice long jam.
Overall, the album’s cover songs prove Keller Williams has mastered the art of reinterpretation. He already has his own special way of putting a spin on things and the addition of the funk band brings this experience to a whole other level. A jazzy version of the Talking Heads’, ”Once in a Lifetime” includes reverb vocals that complement Keller’s beatnik delivery of the song’s lyrics. The album also contains a tribute to Rick Jame’s “Mary Jane”, a metaphorically iconic tune that is the funkiest of the funk. If you still need convincing, check out “West LA Fadeaway” as it was performed at Summer Camp Music Festival in 2013. Keller puts his own funky spin on this Dead tune and has a few special guests to help seal the deal….
Needless to say, the soulfulness of these performances shines through every track of Funk. Better yet, funky could be the most sustainable version of Keller to date!
As your CIT, I highly recommend checking out Funk. Then go see Keller Williams with More Than a Little perform live while you still have the chance! The most recent tour is being billed as “What the Funk” and Keller will be playing two sets of music at every show. The first set will be a solo one-man-band performance and the second set will be the full band experience with More Than a Little.