Keller Williams has released a new album, recorded live over several nights and billed as Keller Williams with More Than a Little (MTAL). Sticking with his monosyllabic motif, the album is called Funk. Honest Tune had a chance to chat with Keller about this album and the band behind it. He was home in Virginia, on a rare day off, and the excitement about the new project was evident in his voice.
In the past, when Keller has created a band, it has consisted of players that Keller fans already knew well. Not this time. Keller picked up a band of local Virginia players who spend more time playing churches than bars. The album is called Funk, but it is full of gospel, soul, disco, and R&B elements. It consists of ten songs, six of them covers, ranging from Rick James to the Grateful Dead, from Talking Heads to Flight of the Conchords.
More Than a Little consists of Keller on vocals and electric guitar, EJ Shaw on bass, Gerard Johnson on keys, Toby Fairchild on drums, and vocals from Tonya Lazenby Jackson and Sugah Davis.
When speaking about the origins of MTAL, Keller expressed a deep sense of awe. â€œI think itâ€™s a natural progression, going into deeper, soulful R&B, gospel type of funk. I mean this is not your ordinary group of guys trying to play funk music. These folks have allowed me into their world, man. I think these folks feel the funk and they understand the soulful R&B formula that has been foreign to me until now. Teaching them these songs and having them teach them back to me, itâ€™s been a real, super inspiring experience and it continues to be.â€
The name of the band is also the name of one of the originals on the album. Keller says this name came from the feelings he got the first time he played with this group. He was more than a little happy, more than a little inspired. And of course, the group is â€œmore than a little funky.â€
Keller was connected with this group of musicians through Fairchild, who played drums as a part of The Added Bonus, one of Kellerâ€™s New Yearâ€™s Eve run bands from the past couple of years. While his sense of amazement came through for the entire band, it was particularly prevalent when speaking about the awesome powers of Johnson. â€œIf you ever listen to an African-American sermon – you know with the people cheering them on and thereâ€™s organ in the background – thatâ€™s Gerard. His ears are constantly open, heâ€™s following everything. Heâ€™s an auditory genius.â€
Â Kellerâ€™s brand is built on his one-of-a-kind, one-man looping show. When he is alone, he can go anywhere on a momentâ€™s notice. He can change songs, switch tempos, drop out and start over; there are no rules. That is a special kind of freedom. But a band brings with it many advantages as well. Keller reflected on that freedom versus those constraints that playing with a band provides:
Â “Oh my god. Thatâ€™s the thing with these people. I canâ€™t say enough how they allow me to be in their world, you know? Thereâ€™s a certain kind of freedom playing solo where you can go anywhere at any time and thatâ€™s not always the case with a band. Except for this band. This band is so used to following different energies, whether it be a preacher or some kind of R&B thing. In R&B, at any time, the lead singer can say â€˜break it downâ€™ and then go into some kind of story. You know, itâ€™s like, itâ€™s almost as free as playing solo, playing with these folks, because theyâ€™re so in tune with what Iâ€™m doing, theyâ€™ll follow me anywhere and slip right in as if we rehearsed. Thereâ€™s a certain element of improv that I didnâ€™t expect going into this project, you know, is really unbelievable.”
When asked if his band with their gospel background have started calling him Reverend, Keller deadpans, â€œThey call me a lot of things,â€ but Reverend is not one of them. But that does seem to be the role that he is playing in this band. He is the man in front, leading his people through their rites while his band follows him seamlessly from place to place. Close your eyes and you can almost see Keller running back and forth on stage, wireless mic strapped on, serving as the leader of less an audience than a congregation.
The album opens with a cover of the Flight of the Conchords, â€œI Told You I Was Freaky.â€Â Keller admits that the band was not familiar with that song or anything the Flight of ther Conchords has done.Â In fact, he still doesnâ€™t think they have ever heard the original. But they certainly bring their own unique approach to the song and it brings out a funk sensibility to the song that is certainly less prevalent in the original. Keller also admits the band had never played Grateful Dead songs before; this too was new to them. But you would never know it listening to their funked-up version of â€œWest L.A. Fade Away.â€
One of the most underrated, but most powerful parts of Kellerâ€™s new band his the strength of singers, Tonya Lazenby and Sugah Davis.Â Since this band first started, Keller says his upfront singers have been â€œgetting some love from other bands too and thatâ€™s really exciting.â€ And he likes to make clear that he does not see Lazenby and Davis as background singers, rather as upfront singers.Â He feels their contributions and what they add to each song makes them more than just simple back-up singers. He compares what they do to the deep, powerful harmonies he heard in later day versions of the Jerry Garcia Band by vocalists Jaclyn Branch and Gloria Jones.
The band moves effortlessly from Talking Heads â€œOnce in a Lifetime,â€ to Donna Summerâ€™s â€œI Feel Loveâ€ to Rick Jamesâ€™ â€œMary Jane.â€ The latter is the only track on the album on which Keller is not singing lead, showcasing his upfront singers. These songs all come from very disparate traditions, but Keller and MTAL make them all work within one solid sound. The album closes with a mash-up entitled â€œSamsonâ€™s Wine,â€ which moves back and forth between â€œWine,â€ by Danny Barnes and â€œSamson and Delilah.â€Â Itâ€™s a song that fits perfectly with the gospel-flavored tinge of the album. While most people associate â€œSamson and Delilahâ€ with The Grateful Dead, Bob Weir initially learned the song from the Reverend Gary Davis (though Davis was not an actual Reverend he was very spiritual).
When asked what music he has been listening to lately Keller said he has been very excited about a band called Breastfist, that he says is, â€œa mix ofÂ Ween meets,Â super-funk,Â itâ€™s like Ween, Zappa but withÂ a real strong sense of groove and funk.â€Â He has been particular enamored with their song â€œTalk to the Fist.â€Â Given Kellerâ€™s always wandering musical-muse perhaps one dayÂ in the near future or even at his up-coming always raging New Yearâ€™s Eve bash you can hear Keller include the song his set and sing, â€œMommaâ€™s got nothing but love/sheâ€™ll fuck you up if push comes to shove.â€
Follow Josh KlemonsÂ on Twitter @jlemonsk