Jam’s goofball prince Keller Williams

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Keller Williams is jam’s goofball prince, which is saying something in a genre that has more than its share of benign goofiness for reasons that hardly need stating. Williams’ recorded career begins in 1994 with a mouth-trumpet cover of the Sanford & Son theme and moves on from there through album after one-word-title album (19 and counting) of clinical acoustic “hippie funk” with a bluegrass tilt.

Williams hits the acoustic guitar in that percussive, polyrhythmic slap-tappy way: post-Michael Hedges, pre-Kaki King. And he’s damn good at it. Over the top of his largely self-sufficient guitar grooving, he slathers his good-natured vocal persona in ways not lacking in wit and heart.

Never write off music because of genre associations and biases, and do not write off the agreeable and talented Keller Williams. Whatever your reaction to patchouli and trustafarian libertarian hedonism, please take a breath and check it. It’s not Keller’s fault. Maybe it’s yours.

Now, as fundamentally likable and lively as it is, Williams’ work – especially his early work – in some ways epitomizes jam’s gross misappropriation of funk. One hears in the core reactor of even his most sophisticated guitar parts the gospel of hippie funk as delivered and received in a million suburban garages, including my own. Grab your ninth chord and strum with me now: cha chinka cha, ch’ cha-cha-cha.

And yes, that pattern is to be found on occasion in James Brown and P-Funk. But jam funk runs afoul when all the players in the band go in for the full funkgasm on their own instruments, missing the point that funk is an ensemble act, a complex, integrated groove machine, and that the spaces between are more important than the notes themselves. Perhaps it is time to stop calling it funk, removing it from that lineage, and just let it be what it is: jam groove, beloved by many, loathed by many and unmistakable in its musical earmarks. (And one cannot overstate the invigorating influence that Medeski, Martin and Wood have had on the jam funk scene; it really has gotten funkier since jam stole MMW and half of Scofield from jazz.)

It’s a good thing, a redemptive thing, that Williams, like so many of his jam stage peers, has a taste for old-school psychedelic rock and – especially – bluegrass. Thank Jerry for both of those. Pick, Williams’ 2012 blues ‘n’ grass collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys, is a high-spirited, live-feel affair in which Williams’ trademark guitar slapistry and clever verbal meandering find purchase in some deep, true and heartfelt roots grooving.

Keller Williams solo performance, Saturday, September 14, 9 p.m., $35/$45/$55, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.

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