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Keller Williams is jam's mad scientist

By Greg Cahill

He's one of a kind, all right. A singer and songwriter known for his laconic wit, Keller Williams is a virtuoso guitarist, a jam master and a tech whiz who has managed to combine all of those talents into a single high-energy package that has earned him the title "Jam's Mad Scientist."

Onstage, the multi-instrumentalist is an affable young Virginian who performs with a variety of acoustic and electric guitars and basses while twiddling the knobs on a bank of electronics that provide drum loops and assorted bleeps and squawks. Williams performs with a homespun twist that the Austin Chronicle recently noted flouts the clinical feel that mars many jam bands. His intricate guitar work borrows heavily from the late Michael Hedges, one of his idols. Performing for a decade and recording for the past five years, Williams brings his one-man jam to the Mystic Theatre Saturday, March 20.

At his best, Williams pairs his go-with-the-flow sensibilities and complex musical mélange--a mix of rock, jazz, funk and bluegrass that is reminiscent of the String Cheese Incident, a jam band with which he is affiliated--with gentle, often humorous lyrics. For instance, his "Freeker by the Speaker" muses about the "rave girl with a lollipop binky and a face full of metal" who attends one of his shows.

The quirky "One Hit Wonder" relates the tale of "a simple little ditty with a sharp catchy hook and three little cowboy chords that you learn from a book" that lands the coveted position at the top of the charts. His own flirtation with the charts is limited to the recent college-radio hit "Love Handles," a quirky ode to his flabby hips.

But Williams can get down and dirty, as evidenced by the jazzy instrumental "Mental Instra" from his 2002 album Laugh. That same year, Williams flexed his sinewy knack for musical experimentation by releasing a remix version of Laugh called, appropriately enough, Dance. In the liner notes, he suggests that Dance "can be best absorbed when played at high volume, while standing directly in the center point of the speakers, with a dozen of your closest friends, in the middle of the night, on a plush, soft putting green of a backwoods public golf course."

Who could argue with that?

Meanwhile, the wide world is waking up to Williams, thanks to his newly syndicated radio show, Keller's Cellar: Somewhat Ruleless Radio, in which the eccentric musician gets to share his eclectic record collection. It's only airing on nine stations around the country, but you can check it out online at www.ktbg.fm, compliments of KTBG (90.9-FM) in Kansas City, Mo.


Keller Williams performs Saturday, March 20, at 9:30pm. Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $22. 707.765.2121.


The Cramps, Live at Napa State Mental Hospital (Target Video)

This newly released DVD brings fresh meaning to the old adage about the inmates running the asylum. In June 1978, the New York psychobilly band the Cramps--whose music was once described in Trouser Press as "a uniquely weird pastiche of rock 'n' roll, psychedelia and a monster-movie/ junk-food/swamp-creature aesthetic"--played to a room full of patients at the Napa State Mental Institute San Francisco-based director Joe Rees of Target Video was there with an early hand-held Sony video camera to capture this truly strange event in all its grainy, sometimes out-of-focus, black-and-white splendor.

"Somebody told me you guys were crazy," lead singer Lux Interior tells the audience at one point, "but I'm not sure about that." Sure enough, it's often hard to distinguish the performers from the patients as enthusiastic fans grab the mic or saunter zombielike across the makeshift stage and perform their own medicated-minstrel show. The DVD also features clips from other Target releases showing such early punkers as MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), Flipper, Crucifix, Throbbing Gristle and an amazing performance of the band Crime dressed as cops and playing for inmates at San Quentin State Penitentiary.

--G.C.

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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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