The most (if not only) impressive thing about Friday’s Keller Williams show was the crowd. The guitarist sold out the El Rey Theater without benefit of radio play, a major label (his albums, including the recent “Stage,” are released by the small SCI Fidelity label) or much mainstream press coverage.
At least judging from his Web site (KellerWilliams.net, which in addition to offering tickets, CDs and down-loads, books travel and lodging for camp followers), Williams is a solid draw at similarly sized small theaters across the country.
The musician is usually described as a “one-man jam band.” If that phrase suggests to you a frat boy’s onanis-tic euphemism and not a satisfying evening of entertainment, you would have been in the minority Friday night; the young aud responded enthusiastically to Williams’ every move.
The problem is that Williams seems unmotivated to move beyond the jam-band circuit. Once you get past his gimmick — using samplers and loops and other digital effects — there’s not much that sets Williams apart from his improvising brethren. He has a limited bag of tricks to call on: His vocals are reminiscent of Jack Johnson’s sing-song shrug; the tempo and dynamics remain static; and his flat-picked leads, which show the influence of Leo Kottke, are more notable for their speed than their precision or new musical ideas.
He coupled the theme to “The Jeffersons” to “I’ve Come to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” “I Want a New Drug” to “Ghostbusters,” and he performed undistinguished covers of Grateful Dead songs that bracketed the nearly two-hour first set (the 75-minute second set was, if anything, even spacier and more self-indulgent), but these efforts lacked the sense of surprise and discovery you’d expect from a musician known for his improvisation, regardless of how many different layers of guitar loops he adds.
His fans obviously care, but those among the uninitiated or unmedicated (cheers went up for even the most offhand reference to marijuana) probably spent the three-hour-plus show feeling like a child on a long road trip, repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?”