Genre-hopping, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Keller Williams has performed in Chicago numerous times over his long and eccentric career. Some shows have featured him touring solo as a one-man band, while other times it’s with one of his various projects. His solo live shows often are characterized by a heavy use of looping sounds.
‘Shut the Folk Up and Listen’ Featuring: Leo Kottke and Keller Williams When: 8 p.m. March 10 Where: Park West 322 W. Armitage Tickets: $42.50 (18+over) Info: parkwestchicago.com
“Every time I’ve played Park West it’s been a stand-up, dance loop party,” Williams says. “[Looping] was a way to entertain myself and a way to take it further. And it grew into this monster. With technology, it’s fun and easy.”
However, when he returns to the venue March 10, it won’t be business as usual. Instead, he’ll be simply a singer-songwriter, using a traditional acoustic guitar and voice setup. That’s because the show is part of “The Shut the Folk Up and Listen” tour, which features an all acoustic co-headlining bill with Williams’ songwriting hero, Leo Kottke.
“It’s definitely not a looping show,” he says. “It’s straight-up acoustic guitar and vocals show that kind of focuses on material that often gets overlooked at places I play without seats. Whereas this show will be seated and kind of a listening show. Hence the name.”
The audience for Kottke comes with that mentality of sitting and listening, or as Williams called it a “pin-drop silent audience.” It’s worlds apart from his usual forte. Williams says that while Kottke has a “very distinct finger-picking Delta blues mixed in with storytelling,” Williams is all over the place. That includes mixing reggae, folk, jazz, Afrobeat and dance rhythms with his band KWahtro, who released their debut album titled in January.
“A lot of my world is playing clubs without seats and looping dance parties and different projects,” Williams says. “It’s really refreshing to get away from all that and just focus on guitar and vocals. And to be with an icon like Leo Kottke that I admire. I listen to every note and word he says. When he plays, I’m dialed into everything he says and does. It’s like a working vacation for me, to see him and hear him every night.”
Fortunately, he has an album conductive to this new environment called “Raw,” which was simultaneously released with the KWahtro release. The album’s origin stems from a scrapped 2011 session that he revisited when the idea for Kottke tour arose. Driven by a desire to create an album that represented what he could play in such a tour, Williams pulled four songs from that failed session and added six more solo acoustic songs.However, since Kottke always insisted on going first there was a fear of going second. He eventually got over the fear.
After Kottke’s set, Williams returns for a trio of songs performed by the duo. They’re both very happy with the setup.
“I think that makes [Leo] happy and that makes me happy when he’s happy,” Williams says. “I wish it would continue, as we’re having so much fun together. I think we’re going to look to continue this tour but with other singer-songwriters similar to Leo and the vibe he puts out.”
One of the songs featured on “Raw,” called “Thanks Leo,” is his way of thanking Kottke. Williams had written it many years ago, and it was one of the songs he kept from the 2011 session.
“It’s played on a baritone guitar, and Leo kinds of tunes down to have that tone,” says Williams. “Even though I was flatpicking I was trying to encompass that finger-picking vibe he has. And the bridge of the song goes into a slow ballad kind of vibe. I just felt like it was a nod to his style of playing and songwriting. And just a way to thank him for the inspiration he’s given me since I was a teenager.”
Williams is doubtful the tour while result in studio collaborations, since Kottke “lives for the road and stage,” but said he would jump at the opportunity if it would arise. For now, Williams is enjoying touring and recording new material during his breaks.
Regardless of whatever format of performance he trots out to the live stage, he hopes whatever he does is meaningful for his audience.
“My career is a feeble attempt to entertain myself,” he says. “It starts me having fun and enjoying it. And hopefully that crosses over to the folks listening and dancing. And luckily some have.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.