For nearly two decades Keller Williams has been fascinating audiences with his lively and imaginative performances. Manipulating sounds with an extensive array of delay systems, looping devices, and custom-made instruments, Keller has rightfully earned the title of “guitar’s mad-scientist.” He builds his songs in phases, recording each layer individually using a series of gadgets and gizmos.
Despite the improvisational nature of his stage act, even the most loyal Keller fans have expressed fear that his one-man show may be growing stale and repetitive. While the validity of that argument is clearly subjective, it appears to some extent that Keller has taken those criticisms to heart.
This past summer, Keller announced that he would be hitting the road with three brilliant colleagues from the jam band scene – bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll, and legendary percussionist Jeff Sipe. What was originally thought to be a few select festival performances was expanded to include a short tour of the Southeastern U.S. this November.
The group, going by the name Keller Williams & The WMDs, made their third stop of the Fall tour at Washington D.C’.s 9:30 Club on Sunday. Soon after 8:30, Keller and his all-star entourage emerged, confirming reports that there was no supporting act. There was an arsenal of axes lined up on the stage and a slightly atypical layout; instead of being centrally positioned, the drum kit was to the far right facing the band as opposed to the crowd.
The show started with some beat box from Keller, with the others joining in one by one. There were a few minutes of warm-up jams and noodling around before the opening chords of “Best Feeling” hit with a bam. Keller sang out “for one second I felt like a kid,” and the trippy projected visuals switched to a recording of his toddler-aged daughter dancing around. As if it was the crowd’s cue, skirts began twirling, arms raised in the air, and the floor in front of the stage became a wave of motion.
The intensity built as Gibb and Keller played the call-and-answer game, finally culminating in a soaring solo from Gibb. A pained expression spread across his face and his eyes shut as he shredded his guitar with feverish energy, unleashing greatness that most performers reserve until the end of the night.
With a zip-a-dee-dip bee-bop, Keller launched into an off the cuff “Sunday Night” freestyle. Declaring it time for a “big-ass party” with a “laid-back chill groovy vibe,” he certainly set the tone for a spectacularly fun evening.
Whenever Keller (and his sense of humor) is at the helm of the ship, funny moments are to be expected. During the second set, a piece of clothing was thrown at his feet to which he commented, “I’ve never received boxer shorts on stage.” The crowd roared with laughter as he leaned forward to inspect them saying, “No I’m not going to touch them! They will be tweezered off.”
The set list was mostly material from Keller’s catalog, peppered with a few cover songs and some Gibb Droll originals. While many different genres were dabbled in throughout the night, the overall feeling was straight up funk. Keith Moseley’s intense bass grooves were at the root of that, reminiscent of funky forefathers Bootsy Collins and George Porter, Jr.
Having Jeff Sipe on sticks elevated this ensemble to the ranks of excellence. His effortless style makes drumming seem simple, and his sense of dynamic balance makes it almost possible to forget he’s there. As the show progressed, it was evident that there was a reason for the kit’s unexpected position on stage. Sipe was constantly watching his three band mates, sensing when to lay low and also when to let loose.
The mind-blowing power of Gibb Droll was perhaps the most startling surprise. There were moments when his guitar seemed liable to burst into flames from the sheer fervor of his playing, and it remains a mystery as to why this man is relatively unknown. His skills frequently inspired incredulous looks throughout the audience and on the faces of his fellow band members.
With the WMD’s, Keller has found a way to reinvent his songs and breathe new life into his act. Their cohesiveness as a group is remarkable considering they’ve only played together in this configuration since June, truly a testament to the tremendous improvisational talents of these four individuals. A night with this live music dream team promises not to disappoint.