Twenty years ago, the jam band scene was a bustling place with bands like Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, moe. and Phish going strong while the newer wave of jamtronica acts like the Disco Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Lotus were quickly gaining steam. Many of these acts converged in the increasingly crowded festival space that would eventually explode with Bonnaroo and others. One of the biggest draws in this landscape was the eccentric one-man-band Keller Williams and his 2002 album Laugh, with the light-hearted “Freeker by the Speaker” becoming a sort of anthem of show culture with its references to the people you might come across. Fast forward to present day and things look vastly different, with fewer original acts drawing smaller crowds. Laugh, however, remains an artifact of that carefree, bustling time in the jam band scene, and on Saturday, November 12th, Williams celebrated its 20th anniversary with a show at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland, Oregon.
Backed by drummer Dave Watts and bassist Tye North, Williams wasted no time in getting right to Laugh and playing it in its entirety as the first set. The album has always managed to encapsulate the signature Keller Williams aesthetic – wildly eclectic acoustic guitar, oddly humorous lyricism, and live looping mixed with other effects – and the band put this on display throughout the first set as they dipped into tunes like “Hunting Charlie,” “Alligator Alley,” and “Mental Instra.” The band kept most tunes fairly close to the original versions, and highlights included “Bob Rules” with Williams namedropping Roger Waters and leading the band into a tripped out Pink Floyd jam, and “Freakshow,” with its references to the Grateful Dead and Ani DiFranco (who actually wrote the song) – two influences on Williams. He would also tease the Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” throughout the tune, solidifying its place as a quintessential festival tune. For the fans, these tunes and others like “Kidney In a Cooler” were a throwback to their jam band glory days. The trio kept it fairly close to the vest throughout the performance of the album, but what was impressive was the way its tracks flowed together like a freewheeling live set. Seeing it performed live offered a testament to the original vision of Williams to capture the essence of playing it on a festival stage.
Returning for another full set, Williams, Watts and North played a mix of longtime fan favorites alongside some unexpected covers. With its thick bass line, danceable groove and nod to nearby Mount Hood, “Freshies” got a strong response from the crowd, while the moody and meandering “Thinking Out Loud” shined with a subtle guitar solo that segued into longtime favorite “Breathe.” Williams showed off his picking skills as he lead the band into the galloping and infectious “Return to the Moon” before easing back into “Breathe” with some sophisticated guitar soloing and a dance beat. They would shift gears with a cover of the Morphine’s “Buena” that was raucous and bluesy with a bit of punk attitude, then moving into a jam that fused reggae and funk. “Doobie In My Pocket” stood out as a light-hearted throwback that the band played like a bouncy morsel of hippie folk-pop. They would close on a high with a slow grooving cover of Phish’s “Birds of a Feather.”
Williams and his band returned to the stage for a quick encore that found them sandwiching “All Along the Watchtower” between a tease of “Stairway to Heaven” to make for one last romp through classic rock glory. Though the medley captured their musical prowess, it also showed that the journey had been more important than the destination. On Saturday in Portland, that journey had meant taking fans back to a fun and exciting time in jam band history.
All photos by Greg Homolka