At Keller Williams’ House of Blues show Thursday, a trumpet plays. Newcomers to a Keller Williams show crane their necks, searching the stage wings for a trumpet player. They find none. He’s making trumpet sounds with his mouth.
Williams’ tricks, like the invisible trumpet, are one of the ways the stocky, casually-dressed musician gets the crowd to hang on his every note. He gets wild applause even when just rocking back and forth while holding a Macbook. For a moment, it’s like we’ve been allowed a secret glimpse into a wildly talented college kid’s solo dance party. Williams thrusts and sways with the computer, playing a mash-up while making ridiculous facial expressions. It is just one man, his cargo shorts and a docile computer, and the crowd goes wild.
Rock critic Jim Fusilli’s 2006 comment (PDF) in the Wall Street Journal that Keller is a “one-man jam session” is fair, except that the show goes beyond that—it’s a jam session with no limits. There are bands with six people in them that don’t have the variation that Keller delivers.
Williams is very interested in the science of sound—he adjusts his soundboard, sets loops, and plays with doubling his vocals, amongst other effects. All of this tinkering takes a lot of maneuvering, but Keller manages to erect a mic stand while still playing his guitar one-handed. His guitar playing is remarkably controlled. Even while playing a string of fast chords, his disciplined hand never wavers from a steady strum. His chord changes and licks are clean and precise.
While navigating various instruments and loops, Keller sings lyrical gems like “For every super hot girl in the front row / there’s a super insecure guy standing behind her / holding on to her waist as she pelvic thrusts the stage.” “Freeker by the Speaker” and “Boob Job” were similarly catchy. The upbeat “Kidney in a Cooler” describes Williams’ tour bus woes. The bus breaks down in Oklahoma, and a woman with a kidney in a cooler gets priority over Keller. He also played several covers of the Grateful Dead, Ani DeFranco’s “Freakshow,” and Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.”
During his “Up in My Cadillac,” pink-cheeked Williams came to the chorus and slapped himself repeatedly without ever missing a beat. “Stop that, you son of a bitch!” Slap. “Stop that, you son of a bitch!” Slap.
After his encore of “Boob Job” and a tease of Ani DeFranco lyrics, he leaned into the mic. He’d just played his heart out, his curly bangs swinging in the air while he grooved between the keyboard and guitar.
He plods offstage. He’s barefoot.