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(SCI Fidelity Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/3/2007)
The jam band scene has been maturing and diversifying over the past few years, with groups ranging from jazzy to bluegrass-influenced, from very electric to mostly acoustic. There are also performers who are associated with the jam band scene, even though they may not meet the strict definition. One such performer is Keller Williams, who usually works as a solo artist, so that he's obviously not a jam "band." But he definitely attracts audiences from that scene, and he has a long-running association with the String Cheese Incident, one of today's top jam bands. He has just released his eleventh album, and continuing in his tradition of one-word titles, he calls this one Dream.
Based in Virginia, Keller Williams combines a virtuosic percussive style of acoustic guitar, along with a distinct tendency to get into jam-like improvisations, and he adds lyrics that tend to be lighthearted and sometimes nonsensical, so he is hardly the sensitive, poetic folkie one expects from an acoustic guitar-wielding singer and songwriter.
His past recordings have usually featured a band providing some backing, but this new recording from Williams is an kind of all-star collaboration. Williams gets together with a long list of guests, including Béla Fleck, jazz guitarists John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, and Fareed Haque, plus Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, singer-songwriter Martin Sexton, and the whole of the String Cheese Incident.
Williams' main instrument is acoustic guitar, and he specializes in getting a whole band's worth of sounds from his rapid-fire playing technique. The underlying sonic current of this CD is also that acoustic guitar sound, but with the added guests, most of them electric players, Dream takes on a decided electric sound for much of its over 73 minutes and 14 tracks. It's a mixture of mostly vocals, but also some interesting instrumentals, which give the guest players a chance to do their thing. And those added musicians make this one of Williams' most interesting and diverse releases, though there are a fair number of ingredients that will be familiar to Williams' increasing number of fans.
Leading off is a track called Play This, a song addressing musical eclecticism versus the commercial pop scene. Special guest Jeff Covert makes an appearance on this track, playing both lead guitar and drums. The tune is a whimsical but still a well-placed dig at formulaic pop music. <<>>
Williams goes simulated hip-hop on the track Celebrate Your Youth, which features the services of some added horn players. <<>>
The track featuring Bob Weir is called Cadillac, which takes the form of an acoustic blues with somewhat metaphysical lyrics, and a guest appearance by Bob Weir's dog barking. <<>>
Keller Williams and 8-string guitar specialist Charlie Hunter's careers have crossed on a number of occasions. They were in a band together for a while, and Hunter has appeared on previous Williams albums. He again turns up on Dream playing on a piece called Kiwi and the Apricot. Hunter's distinctive electric guitar sound contrasts with Williams' acoustic rhythm, while Williams' brings us more of the slightly offbeat lyrics that are his trademark. <<>>
Banjo luminary Béla Fleck appear on a piece called People Watchin', with lyrics rather typical of Keller Williams work, and tricky shifts of rhythms. Victor Wooten of the Flecktones, along with drummer Jeff Sipe of the Aquarium Rescue Unit also appear. Despite the stellar guests, it's not one of the CD's more memorable tracks musically.<<>>
One of the CD's instrumentals is Cookies, which features jazz guitarist Fareed Haque as the guest. It's a rather interesting cross-cultural jam with bit of Eastern influence and some spacey rock thrown in as well. <<>>
John Scofield makes his appearance on Got No Feathers, which features what are classic-style Keller Williams stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It's one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
Sing for My Dinner features the all of String Cheese Incident's members who have recorded with Williams numerous times previously. It's a fairly wide-ranging jam in the String Cheese tradition, with everything from bluegrass to blues in there. <<>>
Keller Williams' eleven albums over the years have been rather varied, with band recordings, collaborations, and a joint CD with the String Cheese Incident. His new release Dream combines a bunch of musical meetings on the one recording, with the fairly wide range of guests proving to be good foils for Williams musically interesting, and yet jam-band friendly compositions. His main instrument remains the acoustic guitar, but this CD, like some of previous, does get rather electric at times. Williams' lyrics tend to be light-hearted, though he can occasionally throw in some insight, but for the most part, what he sings about tends to take a back seat to the playing, which is generally top notch from one end of this long CD to the other. The musical collaborations are rather well-chosen, and in several cases, represent reunions with, for example, Charlie Hunter and The String Cheese Incident. With such a varied record, obviously almost everyone is going to find tracks they like less, but it's not likely to be the same tracks. I, for one, am less enamored with Williams' forays into more electric music, which so many performers have done, but I know that the electric tracks are likely to be the highlights for other listeners.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about an A-minus. The the mix and clarity are good, but as usual, there is too much volume compression, giving the recording an excessively "in-your-face" quality.
Keller Williams has mapped out an interesting direction, being a largely solo acoustic act on the jam band circuit, but this CD unites him with other eclectic musicians, most of whom have also found an audience among jam band fans. The result is another worthwhile album from a distinctive and thoroughly likeable figure on the jam bands scene.
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