The aroma of burning marijuana and hippie decadence descended upon New York’s Times Square as Keller Williams pitched a tent at the Nokia Theatre fresh off the heels of the release of his 11th studio album, dream, on SCI Fidelity last month.
Emerging into the spotlight over soul jazz rhythms, with a guitar in hand and feet bare, on the surface of an ornate rug the Virginian born virtuoso playfully warmed the audience with rhythmic slapping techniques and major-scale phrasing combined with the ringing harmonics. Williams’ loose dress was perfectly complemented by the casual demeanor which the capacity admission exerted through jubilation upon the wooden floor, with floating balloons and the gazing eyes of teenagers in hypnotic psychedelic fascination.
Once the venue settled into a steady groove, Williams launched into “People Watchin’” and got a significant audience response out of the lyrical line “I’m a lucky man and I can say that I have friends in many places,” as he effortlessly moved from the microphone to the looping board. What struck me overwhelmingly was Williams’ ability to multi-track in a live setting. His layering of drums, bass, guitar and replicated vocal trumpet bursts delivered the resonance of tonal clarity from literally a musician filling a room acting as a one-man band.
“Rainy Day” was the next offering, with raindrops falling upon the video monitor that hung suspended at Williams’ back, giving the audience a closer glimpse at what was unfolding on stage. A cover of “Shakedown Street” then followed as the crowd again filled the New York air with the smoky haze of pungent spiritual intoxication, with Williams vocalizing the lyric “Tell me this town ain’t got no heart/I can hear it beat out loud.” The first set concluded with a tease of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and a cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House.”
Emerging for a second set a short time later, Williams continued to showcase tracks in support of an album which featured appearances by Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Charlie Hunter, Jeff Sipe, Steve Kimock, and The String Cheese Incident, by rekindling the bluegrass mood with Bob Weir’s contribution, “Cadillac.” Over the course of the three-hour set, Williams’ talents ranged from performing a calypso jam on marimbas, to a Pet Sounds inspired thermin break, Bourbon Street horn rags and a “Novelty Song” with the focus being the lines coming off his McCartney-styled bass guitar.
The manner in which Keller Williams performs is refreshingly charismatic in its sense of humor and candor. So often are audiences alienated by the segregation between a basic need for entertainment and the serious intellectual standard bestowed by hipsters for acknowledgement of obscurely influential music. Williams spans that gap effortlessly with his ability to simply amaze with the uniqueness and quality of his artistic craft.
Concertgoers range from high school students venturing into the big city, to sweet coal miners’ daughters standing side by side with work week professionals and of course the community of veteran lurkers which populate the island. The New York crowd is pulsating in perfect rhythm as Keller offered a bluegrass rendition of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” with a “Breakdown” tease as the venue exploded with swagger while singing aloud, “I don’t know what I’ve been told/You never slow down, you never grow old.” After about a 75 minute second set, Williams quickly reappeared for a one song “Celebrate Your Youth” encore before the midnight curfew.
Photo Credit: Rod Snyder