The career of musician Keller Williams is one marked by wanderlust. Grounded by his main act, a loop-heavy multi-instrumental performance that earned him the title "the one man jamband," he's also frequently found in the company of other folk, funk, and bluegrass musicians. His most recent project is Keys, a collection of Grateful Dead songs set to piano and released to benefit the Grateful Dead-created Rex Foundation, a charity which supports various artistic and cultural endeavors. However, this album comes off as something of a brief detour from his usual stylistic leanings. As he suggested in our conversation, Keller Williams needs such fleeting side projects, as well as his collaborations with other musicians, to create a whole greater than what he can accomplish alone.

Second Supper:  What led you to make a piano album of Grateful Dead songs?
Keller Williams: I guess it was moving into this house where I've been living since 2006. We got an amazing used piano, and I just sat down and started playing more and more piano now that I actually had one. Having a keyboard, you can go sit down at it, but a piano's a little more inviting. There's no electronics. Once I sat down, what came out were mostly these Jerry [Garcia] ballads. I ended up playing some of those at my shows, whenever I'd play a nice theater or a place that had a piano. We'd wheel it out there and I'd play a couple of songs.
   
I guess around that same time, '06-'07, I released a digital release called Rex. The group was called Grateful Grass; it was all Grateful Dead songs on bluegrass. I released that to benefit the Rex Foundation, and it did really well, so I figured I'd do a follow up with that. The Rex Foundation was founded by the Grateful Dead, so it made perfect sense to pay tribute to that band and give to a benefit that they started.

SS: Has making this record had any influence on your day-to-day musical work?
KW: None whatsoever. This is one of those concept theory records that I've been kicking around for a long time, like the kids' record or the bluegrass covers record that I've done. [Keys] was actually recorded a couple of years ago; it just hadn't been the right time to release until recently.

SS: Do you have any other unique projects that you hope to release in the future?
KW: There's a record that I've recorded that's all solo acoustic guitar music. It's been done; there's just no real rush in releasing it. I'm currently working on a live record with a funk band called More Than a Little, and I'm hoping that will come out later this year. It was recorded over two nights, December 29th and 30th in Norfolk, Virginia and Richmond, Virginia. It's a soul/funk thing, half my songs and some choice covers. I've been listening to the mix for the past week or so, and I think tonight will be the night I do the final edit. I'm hoping to start in on the artwork and text and have the product by the end of the summer or early fall. It's called Keller Williams with More Than a Little, and the working title right now would be Funk.

SS: You do a lot of collaborations with a lot of different people, crossing a lot of different styles of music. Do you find it easy to switch between working as a solo artist and getting on board with other people?

KW: That's kind of what it's all about for me, collaborating and sharing that camaraderie onstage with other musicians. It's what propels and drives me forward. The solo work is what I call the day job, and that's what people know me for, but I'm grateful to be allowed to play with so many different folks, so that's what I look forward to most. Both sides of my career propel each other. The solo side makes me want to play with folks, and when I do a lot of collaborations I'm excited to get back to the freedom of playing solo.

SS: How easy is it to set up tours with the people you work with?
KW: The way I tour is on the weekends. I'm out doing shows Thursday through Saturday and I'm home Sunday through Wednesday. It's not that difficult in the sense of doing weekends with a project or one-offs, a couple of special shows in a row. That's how I prefer it. If I have a bluegrass show on the weekend, then I'll focus on bluegrass when I'm home, get in that mindset. It's really fun for me to be able to switch gears.
   
I'm still working the Pick record from the Travelin' McCourys. We've got a handful of shows this year. I'm working on this live record with the funk band, and we've got a handful of shows. I think a couple of shows with the Keels. So right now it's three projects that I'm pushing plus my solo show.


Keller Williams will play the Pearl Street Brewery on Saturday, March 9 at 8 p.m. The opening acts include Terry VanDeWalker and Mark Joseph of the Big Wu, as well as La Crosse's own Paulie Matushek. Tickets are $22 in advance, or $27 day of show.