Before embarking on dream, Keller Williams’ newest, most rewarding recording project, he scratched out a wish list of artists he’d like to collaborate with in the studio. Because Williams, a restless troubadour, has been a fan of and tour mate with so many excellent musicians, his list of names—including lots of musicians he admires most—ran long and ambitious. “It was a totally unrealistic vision,” he says. “The idea was that all we could do was ask, and the worst they could do was say ‘No.’” The amazing thing is, the musicians he asked didn’t say “No.” And that’s how Keller’s dream came true. Partial to one-word titles, Williams coined the album because it best described the experience. “That’s what this record was,” he says. “It was incredibly rewarding.”
Of course, when your dream team consists of outsized talents like Bob Weir, Béla Fleck, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, Victor Wooten, The String Cheese Incident, Steve Kimock, and more, well, you’re going to encounter an obstacle or two. Scheduling snags held up completion of the album for nearly three years. It took Weir a year to find a date for Keller, but when he did, and he invited Keller into his home studio to do “Cadillac,” Keller found himself living, well, another dream. Likewise for his work with Béla Fleck. Keller and Béla began their collaboration, “People Watchin’,” in the summer of 2004 but it wasn’t finished until two years later. In fact, since this project began, Keller released the double live, Stage (2004), the DVD, Sight (2005), and most recently a bluegrass record, Grass (featuring Larry and Jenny Keel), not to mention hundreds of gigs.
But Keller never gave up on his dream. Armed with gentle persistence and plenty of patience, he slowly but surely started to realize his vision, accumulating a star-studded array of recording partners as the magnitude of the project became increasingly clear. “To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about public opinion for this record,” Keller admits. “It was all for me. Mostly I just wanted to be able to crank these songs up in my pimped-out golf-cart when I’m 80. Some of these artists are living legends and will be appreciated long after we’re gone. I’m extremely proud right now, but I’ll be even more ecstatic when I’m older and can look back on this record and wonder, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”
dream is miraculous in more than just a logistical sense. To begin with, the material, 16 tracks in all, is unblemished; a cataract of electrifying musical alliances. With Williams’ rapturous innovations and his earthy, barefoot-in-the-park presentation as an anchor, songs like “Celebrate Your Youth” (with his pals in Modereko) and the riveting “Ninja of Love” (with Michael Franti) emerge in an endless fount of mesmerizing entertainment.
Because a handful of his collaborators were six-stringers, many of these tracks find Keller moving his own guitar responsibilities into the shadows, sometimes even picking up the bass instead, which, incidentally he plays surprisingly well. “When you bring in guitar players like Kimock, Hunter, Scofield, and Fareed Haque,” he says, “it doesn’t make sense to compete with them. I’ve always had this dream that I would be the bass player in a power trio with Steve Kimock.” On the magical instrumental “Twinkle” he fulfills that dream as well. “The power trio vision was a short-lived one, but it became a reality.”
On “Kiwi and the Apricot,” Williams’ acoustic rhythms provide a bed for Charlie Hunter’s ample eight-string punctuations. “Charlie came in, heard the song and said, ‘OK, this is how we’re gonna do it,’ which is exactly what I wanted.
Which is another one of dream’s miraculous qualities: Assembling such luminous talent is one thing. Feeding them challenging material is another. Williams refers to his customary writing MO as simple. “Normally, my stuff is like verse/verse/bridge/chorus, verse/bridge/chorus. But in order to be interesting to a world class player like Victor Wooten—a guy who plays 50 to 60 songs by Béla Fleck, complex compositions all infused with classical training—I needed to come up with something a little bit more, uh, difficult.”
For starters, Keller didn’t send any charts or advance tips to his collaborators, choosing instead to let them come up with stuff on their own. Some songs were written specifically for his partners, some were songs that have resided in Williams’ repertoire for years, finally getting a shot at ultimate renditions of those songs. Keller wrote tunes expressly for Weir and Franti, for example, but he let Scofield take a whack of his own at “Got No Feathers,” which also features Wooten on bass and Jeff Sipe on drums. “John does so many things, I really didn’t know what I was going to get,” Keller says. “But he settled right in and like all great musicians he made it his own pretty much instantly.”
Many of the songs on dream have been shaped and reshaped countless times through Williams’ own acclaimed performances. Known, of course, for his astonishing one-man show, he surrounds himself with instruments and pedals and slides from one to the next. While the tunes are rooted in Williams’ warm voice and spirited acoustic guitar, he gives them depth and breadth via looping and delay. Soon he was accompanying himself, looping several instruments, and filling up an entire room with lush layers of sound … just one man and a humongous imagination.
Keller’s been refining this kind of performance art for almost 15 years, logging over 100 gigs annually, and he’s a productive recording artist as well. dream is Williams’ ninth studio release so far. He began recording in earnest back in 1993, after serving time in cover bands in high school and college. He got his first big break in 1997 when The String Cheese Incident gave Keller, a Fredericksburg, Virginia native, an opening slot on their tour, after he volunteered to do it for free. From that point, Williams began to grow an audience of his own, gradually winning fans through non-stop grassroots touring, beguiling performances, and talented and entertaining recordings. His calling card? A creative combination of talent and technology. Dream serves as a culmination of that approach.
“I can only hope that the people who’ve followed my career this far, the audiences and the taping community, are as thrilled about this project as I am,” he says. “From my perspective as a fan, to be able to work amid such greatness was very humbling and it made dream an amazingly human experience.”