Keller Williams discovers key to keeping kids entertained

Keller Williams is used to feeding off audience energy whenever he plays live. When the guitarist an

Keller Williams is used to feeding off audience energy whenever he plays live.

When the Fredericksburg, Va.-born guitarist and songwriter started playing children’s matinees following the release of his first children’s album, appropriately titled “Kids,” last year, he was faced with a new challenge. He just simply wasn’t getting the energy levels he was used to when performing for more adult audiences.

“The evening show has always been about energy — the giving and receiving of energy — whereas with the kids show, it’s not,” he said, while on vacation with his family on Long Island. “They’re just kind of staring at you, wondering what’s going on, sniffing around. It was difficult in the beginning — to really be used to what you’re doing and having that energy to feed off of, and it’s not there. But I’ve learned how to harness it; I think I’ve figured it out.”

More theatrical

Williams will perform two shows at The Egg’s larger Hart Theatre on Saturday — a family show and drum circle beginning at 2:30 p.m., and his typical solo show at 8 p.m. This will only be maybe the 10th family matinee he’s done, but by now he’s developed a stage show that’s far more theatrical than his typical performances.

Keller Williams

When: 2:30 p.m. (family show) and 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Empire State Plaza, Albany

How Much: $30 (doors); $26 (advance); $20 (family show)

More Info: 473-1845,

“There’s video for the kids show, and I have confetti cannons and balloons along with the music,” he said. “It is a totally different live show. Plus, my adult show runs about three hours with an intermission; the kids show runs about 55 minutes total. And for the kids show, we’ll have a big drum jam out in front of the stage before the show starts.”

“When the balloons fall, the kids pretty much go crazy,” he added with a laugh.

So far, Williams has been selective about where he takes the kids show. The Egg is one of his favorite venues to play at — he was last there in 2009.

“You stand back a couple blocks and look at the place — it’s amazing,” he said. “You go in and it’s like a round, beautiful plush room. It’s an honor and a pleasure to play there. Playing rooms like that is kind of why I do what I do. It’s just a very beautiful spot, and I’m always very grateful to be there.”

The kids show is also the only place to hear songs from “Kids” live. Musically, the album is classic Williams, combining the bluegrass overtones, intricate guitar work and looped instrumental elements that he has built his career off of since the release of his 1994 debut, “Freek.”

But it took him seven years to write and record “Kids,” as the songwriter attempted to get into the mind-set of a child.

“Sometimes I give myself writing assignments for a song, and that’s what this record’s all about, too,” he said. “I was trying to connect with kids on their level as a peer, a friend. . . . Writing for adults is more like — first and foremost, what I do in my music is attempt to entertain myself, and hopefully that comes across to the audience. When I’m writing music, I’m writing stuff I would want to hear if I was in the audience. When I’m writing for kids, that’s writing for kids — everything else is writing for myself.”

Over the years, Williams became known for his use of instrument looping devices, in particular the Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro looping unit, which allows him to create complex layers of instruments in his solo shows with just an acoustic guitar. The device and similar ones have been steadily gaining popularity over the years, something that doesn’t surprise him.

“I was definitely not one of the first — Jaco Pastorius was doing it in the early ’80s, and all kinds of folks were using the actual Echoplex that they used with a tape, an actual reel-to-reel tape,” he said.

“But as a soloist, why would you not really use it? It’s so much fun, and it’s so easy. The technology has come so far, and it’s affordable, it’s fun. It’s a way to do more than what you can do by yourself without it.”

He’s also known for using a custom 10-string instrument, which combines a bass with a standard six-string guitar. His albums, each with a one-word title, run the gamut from alternative rock to reggae to jazz.

In addition to his solo work, Williams has played with numerous roots and jam bands, having toured as a member of Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee and Ratdog in the past. Most recently, he has played with Keller and The Keels, a three-piece string band featuring husband-and-wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel. The trio released “Grass” in 2006 and followed it up with “Thief” last year.

Those three-plus-hour solo shows Williams plays touch on just about everything in his career, including re-imagined songs from his various bands over the years.

Road-tested songs

“Almost all of the songs on the ‘Thief’ record were road-tested in a lot of different situations,” he said. “It’s great; it keeps it all interesting. . . . It’s always fun to change it up and to do it in a different key, with a different instrument, in a different genre. It makes it all the more interesting for myself.”

However, audiences shouldn’t expect any songs from Williams’ latest project. He’s currently playing bass with a keyboard-based trio for his next record, appropriately titled “Bass,” which will be another left turn for the musician.

“That will be a reggae/dub/funk type of record,” he said. “I kind of save that type of material for when that band plays together.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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