When the 2014 Bonnaroo Music Festival line up was revealed recently, the internet grumbling was noticeably louder than usual. Rapper Kanye West, whose tardiness and onstage tantrum brought the good vibes to a halt at the 2008 fest, is back a headliner. Heresy? Perhaps, though singer-guitarist and ’Roo mainstay and all-round chill guy Keller Williams doesn’t see West’s booking as a negative.
“I think it would be fun to watch Kanye perform,” said Williams, who will skip ’Roo this year to perform in Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “Whether people want to admit it or not, they’re drawn to the drama aspect. ‘Inquiring minds want to know,’ you know? This is the stuff people love to read about.”
It may behoove the once-affable Mr. West to take a page from Williams, who, 20 years into his career, remains free of cynicism with a sense of humility and self-deprecating humor. (In today’s body-conscious music industry, how many other performers would dare write an ode to their love handles?)
In addition to his amiable deportment, Williams is renowned for his solo performances, in which he uses an array of looping devices onstage in real time. He also is an in-demand sideman, jamming frequently with the likes of Del McCoury, the String Cheese Incident and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead.
Williams’ latest partners in crime are More Than a Little, a stellar African-American quintet from his home state of Virginia. The title of their new live record, “Funk,” needn’t contain any subtlety; it is nearly an hour of dank, bass-heavy, freewheeling jamming. Williams leads his ensemble — E.J. Shaw on bass, Toby Fairchild on drums, scene-stealer Gerard Johnson on keys, and singers Tonya Lazenby-Jackson and Sugah Davis — through originals, some improv, and a slew of interesting covers by the Talking Heads, Flight of the Conchords and Rick James.
A highlight is the sly women’s empowerment anthem “Being In Total Control of Herself” (check the acronym), which Williams claimed was inspired by a former educator.
“That song is a tribute to Gaye Adegbalola, who sings in a soul group called Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women,” he said. “They record for Alligator Records, the famous blues label, and she was my English teacher. She was part of the black power movement and has had such a fascinating career. She was always reserved when she taught class, but when she did gigs at night, she was this totally different person, completely uninhibited. She was awesome.”
Williams’ involvement with More Than a Little goes on the back burner after a few more gigs, as he readies for his summer schedule. Still, the door will be kept open for future funking around.
“I’ve felt a great sense of accomplishment getting to work with More Than a Little. I’d love to tour the West Coast with them, I’d love to get them in the studio for a proper album. We’ll see. Sometimes you have to stick with the schedule ‘the Man’ sets for you, but I always have my sights toward the future.”