Mark McDermott

Dead and Alive: Keller Williams Grateful Gospel

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by Edith Johnson/thefestivalgirl.com

Keller Williams. Photo by Taylor Crothers

Tucked away in a lush, sun-dappled grove in the wooded outskirts of Virginia’s Oak Ridge Farm, a small stage draped with oversized kaleidoscopic tie-dyes became the unlikely pulpit for a special “church” service one Sunday morning in September 2014. Square straw bales formed makeshift pews, though the congregation mostly stood, and a humble barefoot messenger emerged sharply dressed in his Sunday best, lack of footwear notwithstanding, to share the good word of the Grateful Dead.  

The messenger was Keller Williams, the notoriously puckish, genre-promiscuous, good-time Charlie of the jam band scene. Delightfully shaggy yet dapper in suit and tie, Williams was uncharacteristically reverent that morning at Lockn’ Festival as he led an ad-hoc gospel band into the opening bars of the folk standard “And We Bid You Goodnight,” a favorite encore selection of the Dead at certain points during their career as well as a traditional “lowering down” (burial) song.

Leave it to the iconoclastic Williams to use a nighttime lullaby to greet the morning, a goodbye anthem to say hello, a funeral dirge to bring something to life. What followed was a blissfully danceable 60-minute set of Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead tunes refreshed and revitalized within a gospel framework. Those who entered the woods not knowing they needed an ecstatic call-and-response style “Ripple” or a “Samson and Delilah” saturated in backup vocals from “up front singers,” to borrow Williams’s brilliant turn of phrase, left converted.

Grateful Gospel had arrived, and the people saw that it was good.

But that’s only part of the story.

Sevenish years earlier, Williams brought together some fast pickin’ musician friends to play a benefit show for the Rex Foundation, a charitable nonprofit started by the Grateful Dead. Williams’s concept for that performance was loose, imaginative bluegrass reworkings of Dead classics. The resulting project, Grateful Grass, yielded two live albums and became a fast fan favorite on the festival circuit. Lockn’ wanted to slot it three consecutive mornings on their 2014 lineup; Williams had a better idea.  

“A lot of the [Dead] songs were very bluegrass oriented with lyrics about mythical card games and wolves and pleading for your life and conflict,” says Williams. “But then there’s an uplifting side…that is just obviously gospel.” Always up for a musical adventure, Williams saw an opportunity. “A lot of wonderful festivals bring in gospel groups on Sundays,” explains Williams, “and it just so happened that I was performing with [funk band] More Than a Little out of Richmond, Virginia, and they were very deep into the gospel scene.” Inspired, Williams pitched a Grateful Dead gospel set and the festival went for it.

Digging into “the more soulful, positive, spiritual side of the Grateful Dead and Jerry songs,” Williams turned to his More Than a Little crew for help transforming curated cuts into “a kind of Southern Baptist, black sort of gospel,” which Williams takes great care to distinguish from white gospel, noting that those traditions are “completely different” in approach and feel. With a funky-as-hell rhythm section and a heavenly choir of “up front” women singers, Grateful Gospel is rich in R&B textures that lend beautifully to ’70s-era Jerry Garcia Band staples like “I’ll Be With Thee.”  

Williams has a long history of listening to, loving, and learning the Dead. He hopped on the bus in ’86, saw his first show in ’87, and spent the next couple summers on tour, spinning wildly in hallways and making friends on the lot. “We all took care of each other and gave each other little handsome tips,” Williams says of the Deadhead community. “I definitely got a lot from that part of my life,” he adds. “Later on [when] I was working more, doing my own gigs and going to less shows, I had that kind of street school Deadhead thriftiness under my belt.”

By the early ’90s, Williams was fully focused on his own musical career, but the Dead stayed on his mind. They have a tendency to do that. A masterful guitarist and multi-instrumentalist in his own right, Williams cites Garcia as a major influence on both his playing and his perspective. That influence is evident in Williams’s prolific creation, innovation, touring, and output, as well as in his enormous sense of fun. Williams hops easily and joyfully between his busy life as a solo artist and his role as a frontman to more than ten different side projects of all different sonic persuasions.

Williams has incorporated Grateful Dead and JGB covers into his sets for years. His unique balance of musical virtuosity and lack of self-seriousness are perfectly suited to the art of reinvention—he understands the value of surprise and he always delivers. Perhaps that is why he’s been able to seamlessly collaborate and perform with all four surviving core members of the Grateful Dead (“the Core Four”). He shares their preference for the weird, the unexpected, the freaky. He holds the music sacred, but not precious.

“The love in this music—and the energy that it creates with people that had it as the soundtrack to their lives—is the gospel,” says Williams. “To have it come back and be played in a very respectful way, granted a very different way than it’s originally done,” Williams continues, “I think Jerry would love it. That’s what I believe, and that’s what I have to go on.”

In the name of Jerry Garcia and the words of Keller Williams, “Awe man.”

Keller Williams plays BeachLife Festival May 5.

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