According to Harry Nilsson, one is the loneliest number. But for singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams, one is more than enough. Unlike one-man bands of old, Williams doesn't have cymbals on his knees, horns under his arms, taps on his toes, or a drum on his back. Rather, Williams has propelled the art of the solo performer into the modern age with the help of electronic effects.
Williams' weapon of mass construction is the sequencer. Mastering what he calls "live phrase sampling," looping and delay effects allow Williams to harness a snippet of sound and, with the touch of a button, put that sound into a looped rotation. He then works around that sample, layering on more guitar, bass lines, keyboards, and drums, slowly building each song's foundation, all the while singing over the top. The result is a cacophony of sound that is far beyond what one man should normally be capable of creating -- to the point that one naturally assumes there's a whole band backing him.
"Technology has changed, so I can do much, much more with much, much less," he says during a recent phone interview. "It's not only incredible, it's wireless. I have this MIDI [musical instrument digital interface] on my guitar. I can play something at one station, then walk over to the edge of the stage, and play some backwards flute solo or something.
"The acoustic guitar is definitely the front, the basis of what I am doing, and everything else is added spice to the recipe . . . It's like a DJ formula, where I can take stuff out and put it back in," he says. "Once that core is created, there are all kinds of places to go. It's been like a revolution. I've watched this whole electronica movement grow over the past decade and have been inspired by it, and it's something that's come into my solo shows."
Just as DJs often work on the fly, tailoring a set to the audience, Williams operates in much the same way. Though he starts with a loose set list each night -- and one that never mirrors any past concert -- he always leaves room for a couple of "wing it" and "maker up-er" moments. Yet with 11 music stations spread across the stage and Williams' penchant for smoking prodigious amounts of marijuana ("I would never ever, ever want to be on stage without it. It's very medicinal and it's synonymous with my music and the stage for me"), all that running around should be a recipe for disaster.
Though the occasional mishaps and forced redirections do occur -- and would probably bother most musicians -- Williams simply sees it as an opportunity to test his skills, re-examine songs and explore in new directions. Improvisation is "100 percent big-time" crucial to his musical outlook, affording an opportunity to create something that will invigorate audiences while keeping it interesting from a performing perspective as well.
"I pretty much wing it," he says with a laugh. "I try to keep everybody happy, including myself. I always tried to put myself in the place of the audience. I never want to hear anything real dark or real heavy or real political or real sad, you know. That's how I approach what I do on stage. I entertain myself to the point where if I was in the audience, would I be entertained by it?"
Though a band could easily -- and safely -- fill the musical gaps, performing solo is "more of a freedom thing for me," he says. His 20-plus albums -- often featuring guest musicians -- are all self-produced as well.
"I've never had the want or need or desire to give someone else all that power," he says.
By 15, Williams, who grew up on a diet of Grateful Dead, "hippie rock, and acoustic music," knew he wanted to be in bands. His early groups played frat parties, small clubs, and backyards -- anywhere. His last band inadvertently kick-started his solo career.
"The last band I was in everybody wanted to take the money from the gigs and do a record. We would have to live off our day jobs," he recalls. "I didn't want to get a day job."
Then chance played its hand. Williams was scouting venues for his band when he realized that the band couldn't fit into the corner of a restaurant -- but he could.
"I could get a gig there and could do it solo instead of with a whole band stuffed in a corner. I could get $150 [per night] and not split it, which is pretty good when you're 21," he says. "It just happened by accident, the solo acoustic thing. My day job became playing solo acoustic music at night."
Williams stuck with his band but honed his skills during those mundane Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night gigs in the late '80s and early '90s, when it was "normal to have a guy playing acoustic guitar in the corner of a restaurant with nobody paying attention to him," he laughs.
In time, Williams decided to bring the band in with him -- in the form of a growing wave of digital effects. "Technology started creeping in," he says, "and I created this looping monster."
Tired of shuffling around the coffeehouse circuit in his native Virginia, Williams relocated to Colorado in 1995. His first stop was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he found The String Cheese Incident jamming in a basement bar. Impressed with their ability to jump from genre to genre, Williams followed them around on the ski town circuit, striking up a friendship. They eventually provided Williams with the break he needed to keep his band of one happy, fed, and on the road.
"I gave them a sample of my music, and it went from there," he says simply of signing to the band's fledging SciFidelity label.
Touring with String Cheese in 1997-98, Williams found himself on "real stages in real venues in front of real audiences," where he amazed those who arrived early enough to witness his creative energy. His self-styled ADM -- "acoustic dance music" -- rapidly garnered a devoted following, particularly among the jam band scene.
That connection -- as well as Williams' talent and creativity -- has allowed him to share the stage with a host of musicians in multiple genres, from bluegrass to funk, including every surviving member of the Grateful Dead.
"I would have never realized that one day I'd be sharing the stage with these people," he says. "It's very surreal."
Call it selfish, but Williams answers to no one else. At the same time, Williams is acutely aware of the power of his audience -- the people who have kept him on stage over the years.
"I am a music lover first and musician second. I really, really appreciate the whole dance vibe, the whole circular energy that happens with a band on stage giving to the audience and the audience giving back to the band. So that is kind of the direction I wanted to go in without employing other musicians," he concludes, breaking into more laughter. "And I couldn't really afford other musicians, too."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.