Musical renaissance man, Keller Williams, always seems to have something up his sleeve. The guitarist has seemingly done it all, whether it’s playing as a solo artist, with his new band KWahtro, or any of his major collaborations throughout the years. The newest chapter of Keller’s musical career will see him team up with legendary guitarist Leo Kottke for an extended winter tour.
Dubbed Shut The Folk Up And Listen, the new tour will see Keller and Leo hit performing arts centers across the country for intimate evenings of acoustic bliss. With these exciting dates announced today (see the full schedule below), Keller Williams took a little time out of his jam-packed touring schedule to speak to us about what fans should expect from this unique new project.
Live For Live Music: I think it’s safe to say that we’re all really stoked on this new project. Can you talk a little bit about how this tour came together and how long you’ve had it in the pipeline?
Keller Williams: Well, Leo Kottke has been a huge influence of mine since I started playing music. You know, it was the Grateful Dead, Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, those types of folk when I first started really getting into music. Skip ahead many years to about ten years ago, that’s when the idea first came up of actually doing shows with Leo. Thing is, he always wants to go first and I just could never really get behind actually following him playing. Out of respect, I always wanted to go first, so it took a while for me to come around to it. And I did, and I think the way we’ve set it up makes sense. The format we’ve landed on is that each of us does one set a piece of about 65—70 minutes, and we play together at the end of the first of set, which is Leo’s segment. So, Leo will do his segment, I’ll walk out and play a few songs with him, there will be an intermission, and then I’ll play the final set. That’s really worked out great because a lot of the folks who come out to see Leo, they get to see the whole thing early, and they can stay and see mine if they wish. The three shows that we’ve done, it’s really worked out in an interesting way, and I’m really looking forward to these dates.
L4LM: How are you thinking about this tour in contrast to the other things you have going?
KW: With my career and my life, there are so many projects with so many different humans playing so many different types of music. There is also my solo looping world that has so many signal paths, so many things that can go wrong, so many electronics. The beautiful thing about my sets during the Shut the Folk Up and Listen tour is that none of that is there. There are no other humans, no other electronics to get in the way. It just goes back to the beginning—the roots of where I began with one guitar and one microphone. I’ll be focusing on material people sitting in seats can focus on, as opposed to playing venues that don’t have seats—you know, clubs. I’m used to those. I’m used to being background to the party. However, this is not that. This is a different kind of energy where people hang on your every breath and note, and that’s a completely different energy than the people up front on the rail give off. This is another way for me to evolve and do something completely different than I could have possibly done last time I was in that town. You know, it’s an alternative to rail-riding.
L4LM: With this change in focus for this tour toward being particularly listening-oriented, how did you end up getting to this place? Is it just a natural product of working with Leo?
KW: There are a handful of listening rooms around the country, and it seems like they’re shrinking. There are the City Wineries that are in different cities, the Birchmere outside D.C., the Hamilton, the Coach House—places that are like dinner clubs. Every now and then, I’d get the chance to go play these venues and get a taste. The funny thing is my audience is just trained to come and feel free and feel like they can do whatever they want. I would go to shows in these listening rooms and see other people play, and it’d be drop-dead silent. Then, I would play.
You know, it would kind of be like a relaxed party in the sense that there were seats, but people were definitely not quiet. The first couple times I went to these venues, I would see these pin-drop silent shows, and then I’d see these people talking and feeling free. I would get a little bit upset, but then it hit me: these people paid for their tickets, they’re allowed to do whatever they want, and I’m not going to stand in their way.
With this particular tour, we’re trying to focus on the intensity that really listening can give off and the energy that can happen from that. So, Leo Kottke has been doing this for so long and has played so many of these beautiful sit-down rooms and theaters. When Leo plays, there are no speakers on stage. He also has an interesting story about damaging his hearing in the Navy. It’s never quite been the same, and he’s particularly sensitive to whistling because those high pitches can actually really hurt him. So, his audience, you know, they know they can’t be hollering or whistling in the middle of the show. He brings an element of folks who feel that this is what you do at this type of show, for whom this atmosphere is the norm. So, we’re going to bring in those people who can hopefully laughs teach the folks who may not be quite as used to being quiet in this kind of situation.
L4LM: Doubling back to the format, in consideration to the venues and the way each night is set up, it almost seems as though these shows could lend themselves to being programmatic. Will you two be developing a loose program of sorts so that there is a degree of musical consistency across the setlists for the tour, or is there going to be more spontaneity than that in a given night?
KW: At the present, we’re just getting to know one another musically as far as playing together, though, I mean, I know his catalog and everything. Leo is very set in his set, in the sense that he definitely rotates songs, but there are some that will appear every night and others that will kind of come and go. My set, it definitely rotates. There’s a big handful of songs that work really well in this setting and this situation, knowing this is not the type of tour that people will go to for multiple nights in a row. But as far as rotating songs, for right now, we’re trying to bring our A-game, which means probably focusing on performing songs that will be presented in the tightest and best way possible, and those will probably be ones that are repeated.
L4LM: In descriptions of the tour, you’ve talked about how you’ll be able to hear everything that Leo is playing throughout the night, and how you’re going to let that inspire your playing. What does that mean and how does that manifest, especially in the context of repeating your tighter songs?
KW: Well, I’ll be hearing everything Leo plays. I have an in-ear monitor, so I have a wireless belt-pack that’s connected to the monitor board. Like I mentioned earlier, Leo uses absolutely zero monitor. Even when he did all those shows with Mike Gordon, there were never monitors on the stage, and they were both playing off of the front-of-house speakers. When you’re on stage, it can sound not-very-clear. I have these speakers with little sub woofers and tweeters just lodged right next to my eardrums going into this belt-pack, which has the perfect sound of his guitar and his vocals. When I’m backstage while he’s playing, I’m trying to listen to the show. I’m actually shutting the folk up and listening. I mean, it’s to the point where I’m very, very rude backstage. Some people will just sit there and talk to me while I have my headphones in, and I’ll have to take my headphones out. It really doesn’t make me very happy when I have to do that.
But yeah, I’m listening and hearing every note as pristine as can possibly be, and definitely taking that out and that vibe on stage. As far as the question about how this affects any repeated songs, some of these songs, if you listen to Leo Kottke live shows, you’ll pick out a pattern of songs that he does every show. I wanted him to feel as comfortable as possible by choosing songs where he can kinda do his thing, and I can add my “-isms” over on the side and sing a little harmony. The fact that he doesn’t have monitors, if my harmonies are off a little bit, I don’t think it really affects him, because he’s not really hearing it like I’m hearing it. So, it seems to be working, and my main concern is keeping him as comfortable and wanting to continue this idea.
L4LM: This is definitely a much more formal setting than a lot of your fans are used to seeing you playing. I know both you and Leo are both noted for having great senses of humor though, so, your fans shouldn’t prepare themselves for a formal and serious night at the opera, right? It’s still going to be a jubilant and joyous occasion, just with the volume turned down a little?
KW: Oh, absolutely. It’s almost like a passive-aggressive comedy show. Leo seems to be the happiest when he is on stage. He really feels the most comfortable up there. He starts to talk and then he tells a story, which opens up another idea of another story, and then he veers off and gets another idea for another song, and then he remembers the original song he was going to do before he veered. If you’re listening, you’re following him in every way and at every turn, and it’s really hilarious. He’s very dry, and he’s real, and he remembers so much in the moment. As far as spontaneity goes, he could tell the same story, but it’s never quite the same. There are always different variations that go off. So, absolutely, it’s not a take-yourself-so-seriously type of show. It’s serious enough to where people might shush you. But there will be laughing, that’s for sure. There are comedy elements throughout that are somewhat unintentional, and it’s how kinda we roll. You know, I write songs that entertain me and make me laugh, and sometimes it carries over, sometimes it’s dark. The comedy in Leo’s world is in the back corners of his brain, and it totally comes out during the stories.
L4LM: Because this tour is targeting venues with a different vibe than those that you traditionally hit, how does venue affect how you prepare or even just conceptualize your different shows?
KW: You know, there are a handful of songs that are just 100 percent ripe for dancing and the looping element. That’s obviously not going to be here. The songs that I’ll be playing are most suited for this environment. I can definitely do an acoustic “Freeker,” “Best Feeling in the World,” “Doobie in my Pocket”—all these songs can totally work in the sit-down environment. Then, there also these story songs like “Missing Remotes,” which are kind of spur-of-the-moment, state-of-consciousness type songs that I make up. Those are all really good for this type of element. Plus, then, there are the random cover songs that comes out and the asking of the audience of what’s next. There’s definitely the relaxed night at the theater vibe as opposed to tight-buttoned ushers. Well, there could be usher issues with dancing in the aisles. You know, sometimes people stand up and turn around and try to get people to get up as well… I guess there could be usher issues. laughs But no, this is definitely a more relaxed night at the theater than what maybe we’re leading on.
L4LM: Do you find it difficult, changing gears so quickly? Especially in contrast with this current tour, KWahtro, do you find it hard to change from something that is so energetic and lively and dance-oriented to this new feeling, or does it come naturally with the setting and with Leo being there?
KW: I think it’s very inspiring and not very hard to change gears. It’s going to be a welcome change, and I think I’m going to learn a lot. And I’m going to take what I learn with me back into my solo looping shows as well as. I’m probably going to miss it when I go on solo looping shows. It’s very freeing and easy, not to have so many signal paths and personalities and hotel rooms. It’s just different. It’s just easier, you know? Travel is the fastest when you travel alone type-of-thing. Yet, in that same breath, you can’t really do the things you do with others by yourself. It’s different. But, I’m thinking I’m going to enjoy the change and relish in it.
L4LM: Would you say this is foreshadowing a new direction for you, or rather, a return to an old direction? Or do you think of this as just a crazy and wonderful reprieve from your normal schedule? Because, we all know you always have some new trick up your sleeve that you’re working on.
KW: Right, right. I think this is just another option, you know? There’s the funk, there’s a couple different bluegrass things, the gospel. There’s the solo dancing. This is the solo sitting. This is another option. This is definitely where it started, where I kind of came from—alternative folk music is what we were calling it in the late 80s, early 90s. You know, following the footsteps and the trails blazed by Ani DiFranco and Michael Hedges and Martin Sexton and all these people who I still look up to. Not really overthinking too much, but it’s definitely a possibility of a direction I could go in twenty years if I’m lucky enough to be able to still be doing it in twenty years. If I still got people coming out in twenty years, this could be an option. Like I said, it’s is another direction, a different way to present myself for the next time I come to town. That’s kinda how I’m thinking about it right now.
Keller’s tour with Leo Kottke begins on January 12th and will run through April. Tickets can be found here.
Future Dates for Keller William and Leo Kottke’s Shut the Folk Up And Listen
Solo Keller and KWahtro Dates Noted With *
1/12 Ridgefield Playhouse | Ridgefield, CT
1/13 Paramount Theatre | Rutland, VT
1/14 The Colonial Theatre | Keene, NH
1/19* WoW Hall | Eugene, OR – KWahtro
1/20* Wonder Ballroom | Portland, OR – KWahtro
1/21* Nectar Lounge | Seattle, WA – KWahtro
1/26 Reilly Arts Center | Ocala, FL
1/27 Capitol Theatre | Clearwater, FL
1/28 Parker Playhouse | Ft. Lauderdale, FL
2/2 Live at the Ludlow Garage | Cincinnati, FL
2/3 Carnegie of Homestead Music | Pittsburgh, PA
2/4 Performing Arts Center Rockwell Hall | Buffalo, NY
2/9* Redstone Room | Davenport, IA – Solo
2/10* Waiting Room | Omaha, NE – Solo
2/11* The Cedar | Minneapolis, MN – Solo
2/16 Carolina Theatre | Durham, NC
2/17 Carolina Theatre | Greensboro, NC
2/23 NY Society for Ethical Culture | New York, NY
2/24 State Theatre | New Brunswick, NJ
2/25 The Cabot | Beverly, MA
3/9 Sheldon Concert Hall | St. Louis, MO
3/10 Park West | Chicago, IL
3/11 Barrymore Theatre | Madison, WI
3/16* Blind Pig | Ann Arbor MI – Solo
3/17* The Intersection | Grand Rapids, MI – Solo
3/18* The Vogue | Indianapolis, IN – Solo
3/30 The State Room | Salt Lake City, UT
4/1 Green Valley Rec | Green Valley, AZ
4/6 Florida Theatre | Jacksonville, FL
4/7 Variety Playhouse | Atlanta, GA
4/8 Charleston Music Hall | Charleston, SC