By Alan Sculley
---- — Keller Williams’ new CD is something of a surprise album. After all, “Funk” isn’t exactly what fans expect for a title of a record by this musician who is known for acoustic music that leans toward folk.
For Williams, “Funk” is a journey back to one of his core influences and a form of music that has always informed his acoustic guitar playing.
“It feels very normal and a natural progression,” Williams said of “Funk,” which was culled from a series of 2012 concerts with a band featuring bass, drums, keyboards and a pair of female singers.
“It’s always kind of been there for me, that right-hand rhythm of keeping that back beat,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to create some kind of dance vibe, even in the solo acoustic realm. It doesn’t feel like a departure for me at all.”
Williams grew up just south of Washington, D.C., where in the early ’80s, Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk were massive go-go bands,” Williams said, mentioning a funk-influenced style of music that became particularly identified with the Washington, D.C., in the 1960s.
“Once I got into like sixth or seventh grade, I remember I played trombone in the little symphonic band in middle school. ... In the high school in the city I got to be in the marching band. And all the kick drummers, the band director and all of the drummers and percussion, everyone was super, super into the go-go (sound),” he said. “I want to say that’s probably where it really banged me upside the head, because I was so immersed in it and feeling the actual kick drum and the roto toms. I think that’s where it started.”
Circumstances took Williams and his music in directions that made some of his influences – including funk – less obvious than they might have otherwise been. As he noted, he became a solo performer out of necessity, not preference.
“When I was a teenager, when I was first starting to play, the idea was always to play in bands, play with groups, have a camaraderie, have this certain connection through music,” he said. “That was always the idea. Then it came around to making a living at it and I couldn’t afford to be in a band.”
So Williams, 43, began to play solo acoustic, releasing a debut album, “Freek,” in 1994. It wasn’t long before he started to stretch the solo form, using live looping on stage to create other instrumental parts and give the illusion that he was accompanied by multiple musicians.
He gained an early following opening for jam bands. As his popularity grew, he started headlining, using live looping on some songs and playing solo acoustic on others. (His show Jan. 10 at the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry will be solo.)
As time went on, the pull of playing with other musicians has taken hold, as well. Since the mid-2000s, he headed up several band projects, including Keller & The Keels (a bluegrass project with husband and wife Larry and Jenny Keel); a group with bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe that toured under the band name the WMDs, a collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys (backing band for bluegrass legend Del McCoury) and now the funk band, More Than A Little.
“Funk,” the album, culls 10 of the best songs recorded during a run of a half-dozen year-end 2012 shows. It includes Williams’ originals (reworked into a full-band funk format) and covers of songs by Rick James (“Mary Jane”), the Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”) and Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”). The performances on “Funk” are fun, light-hearted and just a bit quirky.
Williams said More Than A Little came together quite casually and originally they planned just to play those shows to close out 2012. However, the band kept getting offers to play over the past year. Now they will do a proper tour from January into March.
“The connection (for More Than A Little) kind of came with the drummer, Toby Fairchild,” Williams said. “He and I had played together before in a different band. He was doing an R&B night with pretty much the rhythm section (bassist EJ Shaw and keyboardist Gerard Johnson) and (singer) Tonya (Lazenby), one of the ladies, on a Tuesday night. I sat in with them and it was super special and fun. It was the connection made. And I was like, ‘Let’s get another lady and add her into the mix.’ They brought in Sugah Davis, and then we started rehearsing and it really started clicking. It just kind of went from there.”
If You Go What: Keller Williams in concert. When: 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10. Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry, N.H. How: 603-437-5100 or tupelohalllondonderry.com.