The Minimalist Deadhead
As I write this, with a cup of coffee next to the keyboard, I have on my computer’s speakers Keller Williams playing 10 songs with minimal accompaniment—just a piano. It’s the perfect audio complement to a sunny morning in Feb when it’s not yet as hot as Delhi can get nor too chilly.
I’ll get to the 10 songs he’s playing but the fact that Williams is playing just a piano is somewhat of a rarity. Keller Williams is often known as a one-man band, a very apt name for him because he’s usually—in live performances as well as for his studio albums—unaccompanied by anyone else.
Williams uses something known as ‘live phrase looping’ to make it seem as if a full-fledged band is playing with him. He uses instruments such as drum machines and synthesizers but also a vintage electronic music device known as the theremin, which is operated without any physical contact but via two antennae that can respond to the movement of a musician’s hands. But more importantly, Williams plays guitars, percussion, bass, in addition to the synths, drum machines and so on, and manages to sound as if he is playing all of these at the same time.
Very roughly, live phrase looping works this way: the musician plays a riff on some instrument; it is recorded; and played back with a delay. You can layer as many riffs or tunes or melodies in this manner and play them back. The skill and expertise with which a musician uses the technique of live looping determines the final output. Williams, on his studio albums as well as live, is a highly skilled looper.
One major characteristic of Williams’ music is his ability to fuse different genres — bluegrass, rock, folk, reggae, jazz, you name it. Besides the plethora of instruments, Williams uses his voice in innovative ways, and has a distinctive performance and singing style. A third thing about Williams is the names he chooses for his albums — they are always one-word titles. So, his catalogue has albums titled Freek, Buzz, Spun, Breathe, Loop, Laugh, Dance, Home, Stage, Grass, Dream, Odd, Thief, Pick and so on.
The album I’m listening to right now is called Keys (probably because it has, uncharacteristically for Williams, just a piano as an instrument) and, as I mentioned, it has 10 songs. And now, here’s the thing: All the ten songs are covers of songs by The Grateful Dead. Songs that every Deadhead knows but each one stripped down to the barest minimum — played on the piano and sung in Williams’ unique style.
On Keys, Williams plays 10 Dead songs, none of them tunes that are minimalistic in their original forms. Most Deadheads know how complex Terrapin Station is. On Keys, Williams manages to turn it into a spare yet beautiful song without fooling around too much with the original tune. He does that with the others too. So, when on a sunny Feb (or any other month) morning, you spin Keys and listen to Williams doing his version of He’s Gone, Can’t Come Down, Brokedown Palace, Wharf Rat, Attics of My Life, Althea, Bird Song, Row Jimmy and Touch of Grey, you can’t have a better soundtrack to accompany whatever you choose to do on a sunny morning (as long as your range of choices excludes work!).
On his website, Williams says “It’s no secret I have an unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead. Whenever I sit down at the piano it seems the only thing that comes out are Jerry (Garcia) ballads. Even though these songs are not all Jerry ballads, I have sort of made them that way.” He admits to have taken some liberties with the lyrics but then with a band that always took liberties with its own music, I don’t think that matters much.
I’m grateful for having heard Keys because it renews my interest in Williams’ music and his back catalogue. I’d been quite obsessed with his stuff till around the early 2000s and then, I had moved on. Now, I’ve rummaged in my stash of old albums and found my copies of Breathe and Loop and Freek and Stage. I’ve rediscovered Keller Williams and am enjoying those albums, especially Loop and Stage, which are live albums, Stage being a double live.
The fourth and latest full-length album from one of my favourite bands is here. Frightened Rabbit are a Scottish indie band that hails from Selkirk and their new album is called Pedestrian Verse. Frightened Rabbit make nervous, moody music that’s a compelling listen and Pedestrian Verse doesn’t disappoint. The thick Scottish brogue that marks frontman and singer Scott Hutchinson’s English doesn’t hurt either. It never does, and never did even on the band’s last four full-lengths: Sing The Greys, The Midnight Organ Fight, Quietly Now! and The Winter of Mixed Drinks.