Last time encore spoke with Keller Williams a couple of years ago, he was preparing for his one-man looping instrumental dance party at Brooklyn Arts Center. Williams has a way of bending notes to his will.
Williams released an instrumental album in October, “SANS,” and has another solo record, “add” (lowercase, as to not be confused with Attention Deficit Disorder), of electronic beats dropping any day now. “Literally, it’s just going to appear and drop,” Williams quips over the phone. “It’s like I’m adding back in the lyrics as a follow-up to the instrumental record.”
He’s also recording the next Keller Williams and the Keels record for an early fall release. It’s another set of originals, plus two covers and one older song that’s never seen the inside of a studio before now. Despite time in the studio and releasing three separate records this year, Williams also found time to tour with Grateful Grass, to play his favorite Grateful Dead songs, arranged and reimagined as bluegrass. It’s been more than 10 years since the original Grateful Grass members came together, including Keller, mandolinist Jeff Austin and The String Cheese Incident’s bassist Keith Moseley.
“When I sent them my ideas for the arrangements of the Dead songs, they learned them that afternoon and played it that night,” Williams remembers. “When I put it together, it was all very easy to do because those songs lend themselves well to bluegrass.”
Grateful Grass recorded a live performance in 2008 at The Fillmore in Denver, Colorado, to benefit community arts nonprofit Rex Foundation, founded by the Grateful Dead. After releasing a second live benefit album, Grateful Grass iterations have since sprouted here and there over the years. The latest roundup of Grateful Grass players include Williams’ friends from The Love Canon, known for their ‘80s cover collection restructured through an acoustic-roots lens.
“The Love Canon is a fantastic group of guys that pay attention to detail,” Williams says. “Grateful Grass is very often extremely loose in the sense there are usually different players every gig because there’s a lot people who love music—because it’s easy and it’s fun and a lot of the pressure’s off of the musicians to play their own material. They’re all coming together to celebrate this music.”
None of the Dead’s songs are a far stretch, stylistically speaking, from American roots. The famed ‘60s act started as a jug band, after all. According to Williams, once he entered the bluegrass mentality, songs seemed to bend and shape easily. He picked with tracks like “One More Saturday Night,” Loose Lucy” and “Casey Jones” during the first go-round. Nowadays, he includes “Bertha,” “Shakedown Street” and “Alabama Getaway.”
“Believe it or not—for those really into the Grateful Dead—a song named ‘Wharf Rat,’” Williams adds. “They won’t believe how well it works as a bluegrass song. . . . To me, it never seemed like it would make it … until it did. As far as songs that have come alive [in these sets], ‘Wharf Rat’ has.”
Williams’ own appreciation for the Dead isn’t just about songs but the extensive catalogue from which they played. The Grateful Dead were the biggest cover band in the world, making songs their own along the way (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” George Jones’ “The Race is On”). As a longtime fan, Williams gravitated to the Dead’s offshoot bands, too, such as Old & In the Way, featuring Jerry Garcia on banjo.
“Then, when other bluegrass bands started taking popular songs and making them bluegrass, I started putting it all together for my own tongue-and-cheek-style of bluegrass,” he offers. “I love bluegrass, and the Dead definitely had that kind of country-western mentality as far as lyrics goes. Robert Hunter, the lyricist, wrote a lot about card games, horses, mythical folklore, and things of that nature.”
There are obvious stylistic differences between Grateful Grass and Williams’ other Dead-inspired project Grateful Gospel. Grateful Gospel focuses on the spiritual side of the Dead and Jerry Garcia’s repertoire, whereas Grateful Grass has unlimited potential.
“Like ‘Friend of the Devil’ isn’t a great gospel song, but it makes a great bluegrass song,” Williams offers. “It’s really aimed at the material and that’s the biggest difference. . . . Grateful Grass is pretty much anything goes.”
But that doesn’t mean Williams will cover just anything and everything. He says some are too sacred to ever touch. “For one thing they’re really hard to play,” Williams says, pointing to “Cats Down Under the Stars” and “Love in the Afternoon.” “A lot of Jerry’s songs are tricky in the sense it takes a while to learn them—and if I haven’t learned them by now, I don’t know if I could do it justice.”
Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass with Love Canon will play Wilmington’s Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Saturday. He’ll play a solo set of his own originals, too, steeped in quippy songwriting (“Doobie in My Pocket”) and acoustic dance music created by way of looping.