Show Review: Keller Williams at the Englert 10/23/2009

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Being an older fellow with my own musical preoccupations, I’d not known of Keller Williams before hearing of him through Little Village. I was a Keller Virgin, unlike most of the audience who sang along with many of the songs.

What I gathered from observing the audience is that these are people who were too young to follow the Grateful Dead–some too young to even follow Phish–but a similar spirit was in effect. The crowd even smelled the same as a Dead audience–weed smoke, beer, and a hint of patchouli. I saw twenty-something kids who brought their parents, and the parents looked like they might have seen the Dead more than a few times.

But this review shouldn’t be about the crowd, though it’s pretty obvious that Williams is intimately in tune with his audience. It all became very Meta when he sang “For every super hot girl in the front row/there’s a super insecure dude standing behind her,” as I was standing near a couple who appeared to be those lyrics in the flesh.

The stage was set to look like a guitar shop, which underlined the intimate vibe Williams brought. It seemed to say “I’m just another guy with a guitar,” even though he’s obviously a monstrously talented guitarist.

Williams is akin to a younger, hyperactive version of Jimmy Buffet, who uses digital harmonizers and looping pedals to be his own band. Most of his songs featured a backbeat guitar groove with double and triple time flourishes. Song quality varied; he sometimes slid into the bland bro-funk that makes Dave Matthews so irritating. His selections of covers–“Staying Alive,” “The Joker,” “Barracuda,”–are straight out of the classic rock style most of the audience heard riding around in car seats with Mom twenty years ago. His renditions struck a charming balance between nostalgia and irony, and his way of curating the Ur-pop engraved on everyone’s hind brain further ingratiates him to his audience.

Though the humor of his funny songs is gentle and winning, where he got through to me was through the songs that were neither jokey nor busy with digital looping and harmony. Every so often he’d just play the guitar and sing, and the songs would have lovely melodies combined with inventive chord progressions. I even heard echoes of Arthur Russell’s loopy romanticism, which I can never get enough of.

Kudos to the Englert for having a relaxed, but effective, approach to security. It takes some deep cleansing breaths to keep from freaking out when your nice orderly theater turns into a throbbing mob scene. My only complaint is that sound on the main floor was muddy, probably a result of having the front-of-house mixing setup up in the balcony–the sound coming down the stairs from the roped-off balcony was better than what the audience was hearing. That is probably not the theatre’s fault, as I’m sure Williams tours with his own sound guy. But as a venue, the Englert is a fantastic addition to the community, and if they can bring in more shows like Keller Williams, it will become famous for its intimate vibe.


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