On a frigid yet calm February night in the Southern Tier, I headed down to Ithaca to see Keller Williams at The Haunt. Keller popped into the jam scene in the early 90’s and has become known as the quintessential one man jam experience. While he does occasionally play with a band, this was to be a purely Keller experience and despite my long history in the jam scene, this was my first live exposure to his music.
The Haunt is a historic music venue in Ithaca that started in the 80’s and has hosted a myriad of top name talent over the years, including multiple shows by Phish in 1988 and 1990. The venue moved in the past decade and now resides slightly outside of town with a Gorge-ous deck alongside one of the inlets that feeds Cayuga Lake. With the 2012 closing of Castaways, the Haunt has become the premier go-to mid-sized musical venue in I-town. They feature an ever changing excellent selection of draft and bottled beers, RazorBack BBQ and all at comparable prices to other Ithaca venues.
I arrived to the venue promptly at the 8 o’clock doors opening time and was surprised to already find a line of Ithacan’s eager for some Keller goodness. It was apparent this show was well marketed by the promoter (Dan Smalls Presents) and, despite the venues somewhat off the beaten path location, would be well attended. The security and venue staff were incredibly gracious, efficient and accommodating and definitely added to the overall experience. The stage setup was sparse, with a few big white sheets as a backdrop, a bass, midi-esque drum pad and electric guitar set up on stands around the stage. Slightly after 9 the pre-show music stopped and an acoustic guitar started playing. Keller came onto the stage, barefoot as always, with his acoustic singing an original number. About seven minutes in, after being solely on acoustic guitar, the jam began and Keller made a move towards his bass guitar.
If you’ve never had a live Keller experience like myself, it’s worth taking a minute to go through a jam sequence to see exactly what he offers. Keller picked up the bass, played a few lines until settling on something he liked, hit a pedal to loop it then headed towards his electric drum pad. He laid down a drum beat, set it to loop as well, then spent a minute singing some improv “Hello, how are you” lyrics to the Ithacan’s in house. A few minutes later he picked up his electric guitar, and adds an effects driven “horn sounding” layer to what’s already happening. Now that he had his entire imaginary band in full jam mode, he returns to the acoustic and jams along while using a selection of pedals in front of him to stop, start, and change the tempo of the other looped instruments at will. This ability to change the direction of multiple loops while adding his own improvisational acoustic and vocal additions kept the jamming always fresh and non-repetitive despite the single musician on stage.
Around 13 minutes into the show, the loops are all silenced and he started some beat box jamming. He layered four or five different vocal lines on top of each other before adding some electric drums. It soon became apparent that this would be the first cover of the handful we received that evening, as the loops morphed into a delightful cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”. The cover featured multiple additional brass section sounding effects loops on the electric and Keller himself adding some Spinal Tap inspired air bass. The crowd was frenzied at this point and moving in a giant mass of jam inspired euphoria.
The set ended around 10:30 in grand style, with a double bird: the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song” with a long experimental segue into Phish’s “Bird’s of a Feather”. If this was Keller’s version of giving the audience the bird, they didn’t mind, as the end set applause was deafening.
During the setbreak I stepped outside to enjoy the Haunt’s picturesque side deck overlooking the inlet. I talked to a few fans who all thoroughly enjoyed the first set. One fan sported a fully functional “Fun Meter” pin on the side of his hat which was fully in the red. After making sure he wasn’t going to have a Fun-aneurism being that far in the red, I ventured inside for the second set. The second set started a few minutes before 11pm with some more original material. After some more fun loops and an impromptu improvised vocal “Ithaca jam”, the music segued into Heart’s “Barracuda” complete with “trumpet” vocal sounds and some serious hotness. This section was the champion of the night for me. Barracuda ended and Keller went into another original track. Not done with the covers yet, this track quickly transformed into the traditional “Deep Elum Blues”, made popular by The Dead. Next up was the Keller original “Kidney With a Cooler”, which got some added love with a flavor of the O’Jay’s “For the Love of Money” and a pile of additional vocal horn sounds. The covers continued with The Talking Head’s “This Must Be the Place” with some more vocal improvisation.
The last track of the second set was an extended jam based on G Love and Special Sauce’s “Stepping Stones”. The crowd was devouring this one wholeheartedly and the pre-encore break left the crowd screaming “Kell-er, Kell-er!!” until he came back for one more.
The encore was another crowd favorite, Sublime’s “What I Got”. Keller then left the stage and I made my way back through the crowd to find my way home. A great night, a great show, and a Keller fan I have been made. Kudo’s to The Haunt, Dan Smalls Presents, and of course Keller and crew for delivering such a memorable experience.
See him on March 16th when he heads to Higher Ground in Burlington, VT
Photos by Christine Samson-Telford