Keller Williams made his name building songs live on stage alone with an acoustic guitar and a looping machine, but these days he’s sharing the stage with a quintet of powerhouse musicians.
In his idiosyncratic creative style, he’d build tracks by recording sounds live and looping them together, leaving audiences to marvel as he wove elements together into intricate compositions before their eyes.
The prolific songwriter has averaged an album a year since 1994, and delved into increasingly diverse genres — most recently funk, the focus of his most recent live album, “Funk.”
The Aspen regular returns to Belly Up on Thursday, Feb. 20, with his newest adventure in genre-hopping. The local stop kicks off an 11-show run with his funk collaborators, the five-member outfit More Than a Little.
“They are incredible musicians to play those parts that I was looping anyway,” Williams told me from his home in Fredricksburg, Va. “So I’m taking advantage of the fact that there’s awesome humans there and we’re all having a good time.”
Toby Fairchild, the drummer for More Than a Little, used to host an R&B nigh at the Otter House, a bar in Fredricksburg. Williams saw More Than a Little at the a bar in 2011, then sat in with them. The chemistry was instant, and their partnership was born.
“They were just tired and over it,” he laughs. “Then I sat in with them and, man, we created this crazy magic thing that I wasn’t expecting. It went in so many different directions I wasn’t expecting.”
Williams was finishing up his “Bass” album at the time, and just beginning his collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys — “Pick” — so he put the project on the backburner for a year. In the fall of 2012, he played weekly in Fredricksburg with More Than a Little, then played with them for his annual five-night hometown Christmas-to-New Year’s run and recorded the 10-track funk album live.
At Thursday’s show, he’ll play an opening solo set of his looping guitar stuff, then a set of funk with More Than a Little.
Their shows are heavy on improvisation. Half of the rhythm section plays Virginia churches on most Sundays, so they’re used to musically following the mood and delivery of a preacher — much like they’re following Williams these days.
While a lot of fans know him for his solo looping style, Williams also has toured and made albums with outfits like String Cheese Incident, Martin Sexton and the McCourys. Adapting his songs in the funk idiom with More Than a Little has been an invigorating experience, he says.
“I’m teaching them songs and they’re teaching them back to me in their own formula, which is different from the formula I’m used to,” he explains. “So I’m learning from them and really able to bring new life to old material. It’s quite refreshing and super fun.”
The former Boulder resident is an avid snowboarder — a passion given full voice in his ski town anthem “Floating on the Freshies.” The song extolling the virtues of, yes, floating on fresh powder, always brings out a gleeful sing-along from Aspenites at Belly Up. Williams says it’s among the songs he’s been working on during sound checks with More Than a Little, but hasn’t performed for an audience with them yet. So he may break out a new funk version, or play the familiar rendition during the solo portion of the show.
“That song will get played in Aspen one way or another,” he says. “I promise.”
Earlier this winter, he did a four-stop ski town tour, but his gig schedule didn’t allow him to get on the snow. He made up for it with a week-long stay at a friend’s condo in Keystone, during one of our recent storm cycles, which gave him some “legitimate powder days.”
During his regular stops here, he normally gets some time on the hill at Snowmass. This time around, he’s planning to ride Ajax for the first time.
“I’m excited to jump on the lift a couple blocks from the bus,” he says.
The bus, while he’s touring with More Than a Little, is home. As a solo act, he normally travels light — with a stage and tour manager — and stays in hotels. But with his current band mates, he’s doing it road warrior style, sleeping in bunks on the tour bus and stopping at day-rate hotels for showers to cleanse the funk.