Why should you go see Keller Williams this week? Because he’s one of the most amazing performers you’ll get to see in Missoula this year. Maybe next year, too. In a genre crowded with run-on descriptions, here’s one you don’t see so often: a jam band consisting of just one guy. Using a Jam Man sampler and a quiver full of ideas, Williams packs a full-band wallop onstage with just himself, his effects rack and about eight different guitars.
Well then, ask the frugal among you, why not just put the ticket price toward his newest release, Laugh, get the music for good, save the money you would have spent on beer and not come home smelling like a cigarette testing lab? Because it’s just the wrong format to really dig what Williams is all about. One is Beethoven’s 9th through a tinny transistor, the other is the Williams as a one-man Berlin Philharmonic. Compared to his live show, Laugh is a disappointing mix of astonishing technique and indolent songwriting, worth buying, maybe, for its flashes of guitar brilliance or merely as a souvenir of an awe-inspiring concert.
After six releases, the Boulder-based whiz-banger still hasn’t managed a way of capturing the inventiveness of his live show in the studio, even with musicians as talented as Leftover Salmon bassist Tye North and Dave “The Human Metronome” Watts behind him. Laugh is nimble-fingered and technically bewildering, but also frustrating for its tedious humor and throwaway lyrics. He frequently falls back—for whimsical effect, presumably—on a nasal inflection suggestive of a Mexican Peter Lorre. And junk-food lyrics like the following account for too much of what Williams has to say: “I would dance on my back/Throw my legs up in the ay-yer like ah ah don’t cay-yer/And wave-uh them from side to side/Then I’d bust into a windmill/Then right into a backspin.”
In fact, the track on Laugh that comes closest to reproducing the wizardry that Williams is capable of in a live setting is, not surprisingly, a live track recorded last year at Portland’s Aladdin Theatre. “Freeker by the Speaker” isn’t going to win him a Poet Laureate post for its empty lyrical calories (they’re the same ones excerpted above), but all can be forgiven when you know that he’s doing everything on it himself. “God is My Palm Pilot” is right up there, too, an impromptu duet with Williams imitating all the percussion and bassist North turning in some very impressive Tuvan-style throat singing! The sampled, looped and improvised stuff, sadly under-represented here, is what really makes Williams such a mind-blowing live experience. You don’t even notice the nonsensical lyrics. You’re too busy trying to figure out how he does everything else!
I hate to be so hard on the guy’s recorded output, but it’s just like that. It’s always a drag to compare live stuff to studio stuff (see also: the Book versus the Movie), but it’s just as big a drag to settle for less than the best after you’ve seen the real deal. You could say that Williams is a victim of his own showmanship, because once you’ve seen it done live you can’t help but be nonplussed by the studio version. He can do a pretty good human beat-box, a damned good fluegelhorn sound and a lot of other stuff just using his mouth. The crazy thing, though, is that in concert he does it on the fly, sampling and looping and creating a rolling snowball of sound as he goes. Whereas in the studio he has a real bassist and a real drummer and even the occasional trombonist, flautist or fiddler to back him up.
That’s not to say that the album is all bad, either. It’s got its moments. Guitar fanatics will poop rubber nickels at Williams’ technique, with its death-defying sextuplets and snakefinger chords in rapid succession. Taken as a whole, though, the best tune on Laugh is a cover of the Michael Hedges tune “Spring Buds,” which Williams sings in a clarion tenor, absolutely as soulful and stirring as most of the rest of the album is not. Perhaps the best that can be said about the album’s other cover tune, Ani DiFranco’s “Freakshow,” is that it succeeds in being almost as teeth-grating for non-Ani DiFranco fans (like me) as the original. And that is certainly a feat in itself.
The antidote to the largely unfunny Laugh, as I said, is to give the CD a miss (at least for now) and treat yourself to the Keller Williams live show. It’ll blow your mind, seriously. And there will be CDs on sale, just in case you don’t believe me.