Mile High Music Festival: Keller Williams on his dream collaborations and never playing the same set twice

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The name Keller Williams is instantly recognizable to just about every music fan, whether they are jamband aficionado or not. Combining a complex variety of guitar effects and looping pedals, Keller Williams more or less reinvented the whole modern one-man band movement of the last fifteen years. Add to that an elephant-like memory of hundred and hundreds of songs of his own and others and the ability to never repeat the same show's songs twice, and that pretty much sealed Keller's reputation as a consummate live performer.

This weekend's Mile High Music Fest brings the wildly popular and inventive performer to Denver for one of Keller's annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountain state. We spoke with Keller recently about his list of dream collaborations and how he makes a concerted effort never to play the same set twice, whenever possible.

Westword (Dutch Seyfarth): You've played with so many fantastic musicians over the last fifteen years; are there people out there you'd be inspired to play with? Is there anyone on your wish list you'd still like to get together with and share a stage with?

Keller Williams: Oh yeah, there's so many. Um... there's so many great players. Well, Felix Pastorius, Jaco's son, is an amazing bass player. I'd love to play with him. Yeah, I'd love to play with Garage Mahal, and well, they're just a fantastic band, you know? Oh yeah, let's see... Oh! Fareed Haque is a guitar player; he played on my Dream record, and I'd like send him tracks, and he'd like, you know, record them and send them back.

It would be great to -- actually, I guess we played together at the High Sierra Festival in California many years ago -- but to play with those two together would be really cool. It would also be interesting to do a project with Trey Anastasio; I've always been a fan of his, and that would be kind of fun to collaborate with him. God, the list goes on, you know? Christian McBride... um, oh yeah, Steve Kimock. I'm a huge fan of his. We've played together in the past, but I'd love to do another project with him. I just love his guitar playing.

Ww: When it came to your recent bluegrass cover band recording project you did with Larry Keel, were there any songs that were off limits or was it pretty much anything goes?

KW: Well... Frank Zappa and, um, Jimmy Hendrix stuff -- you can't really get permission for that stuff. I'd say those are off limits if you want to seriously release something. You'd have a legal issue. I did release a bluegrass version of "Dancing Fool" and got approached -- that was just simply through my once-a-week free downloading music series that's on my website -- and got approached pretty quickly by a representative from the Zappa estate saying we need a license.

But really, there are no limits; any song can be twisted into a cool bluegrass song. Some of them, to me, even sound way better in a bluegrass setting, definitely the grunge-grass stuff, you know. I wasn't really, like, a huge fan of it [grunge], but like everyone at that time with the radio on, you'd know almost all the words to these songs.

Then when you go and study them and read the words, they're definitely on the darker side, but they make really interesting bluegrass songs. Then like the twentysomethings who that type of music was the soundtrack to their lives, those people got the most out of it. But there's not really too much that's off limits ya know?

Ww: What's your main hobby when you're not doing something music related?

KW: I have two kids, two and five, and they keep me hopping. So pretty much, this year, I've worked it to where I'm able to go out Thursday, Friday, Saturday, come back Sunday, and I'm home Sunday afternoon through Thursday morning. Kind of doing the split life thing: Drive them around to and from school, ballet practice, to the park, grocery store, you know, the post office, the bank, just do the regular old dad things. I'll go to the dump, cut the grass, stuff like that, you know, just taking care of stuff. It's a wonderful balance, and then I'll rage on the weekends [laughs].

Ww: I remember a friend of mine many years ago telling me a rumor that you keep a notepad of your setlists from shows, so when you come back to that same town you wouldn't repeat songs from previous shows.

KW: Yeah that's 100 percent true. Not only do I keep track, but so does Louis, my front of house engineer. And that's kind of where I get the lists from. He keeps them really and Xeroxes them and gives them to me. I definitely take the setlists a lot more serious than I should. I put a lot more time than what needs to go into the setlists [laughs]. I guess I'm kind of a student of the Grateful Dead and Phish. I would go to many shows in a row and couldn't imagine hearing the same songs two nights in a row by those bands. That's kind of the school that I come from.

There was a time where we had what we called repeat offenders; those were shows where people would go to multiple shows of mine in a row, and so I started taking it real seriously. It was around 2001, 2002, when people started coming to shows, and I'm at every show, so I personally need to change it up for myself. There's so many good songs I could play, it seems a shame to play the same ones every night. So, yeah, I definitely put a lot more time into this setlists thing than maybe I should.

The problem is, it's not only what I played the year before, but it's also, I don't want to repeat anything from the immediate night before. Like if I'm in, say, like, Texas: If I play Dallas one night and Austin the next, not only do I not want to play anything from last year's Austin show, but I also don't want to play anything from last night's Dallas show, either.

It's crazy. Sometimes it takes me a couple of hours to really nail down a setlist I'm happy with, and more than often sometimes, I'll stagger away from the setlist and play what people shout out that hopefully isn't on either of those lists [laughs].

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