The first time I saw Keller Williams in concert, he opened for RatDog, so I’ve always loosely associated him with the Grateful Dead. And now, appropriately, he has released a collection of Grateful Dead covers.
Titled Keys, this album is quite a bit different from other releases by Keller Williams. It is just vocals and piano. Interestingly, all of the tracks are songs that Jerry Garcia sang lead on. Bob Weir is not represented in these song choices; nor are Pigpen, Phil, Brent or Vince. Keller picks mostly the slower Grateful Dead tunes, and those seem to work best with this sort of arrangement.
The full title is Keys: A Collection Of Grateful Dead Covers On Piano To Benefit The Rex Foundation, and as the extended title suggests, all of the proceeds from this album will benefit the Rex Foundation. Named after Rex Jackson, a Grateful Dead roadie and later road manager, the Rex Foundation was established in 1983 as a non-profit charitable organization by members of the Grateful Dead and their friends.
The title Keys is also a reference to a jam the Grateful Dead did for a while in the early nineties when Bruce Hornsby played with the band. “Keys” was played along with the “Drums/Space” segment of the show. I’m not sure if “Keys” was the official title, but it’s how we all labeled our tapes.
This collection opens with a really interesting version of “He’s Gone.” Being done on piano rather than guitar gives it a very different feel. Oddly, Keller sings, “A fact is a fact, and more of the same” (instead of “A knife in the back, and more of the same”). Keller does the vocal part at the end, but of course it’s just him, so you lose that great interaction of the multiple parts.
“Terrapin Station” is one of my favorite Grateful Dead tunes, and the piano really works on this one. Of course, there isn’t as big a build leading to “Inspiration,” as there is with a full band. But the beauty of this song is here. And he pronounces “cicadas” correctly, something Jerry Garcia never did for some reason. Of course with no other vocalists, Keller has to back himself on the repetition of “Terrapin!” toward the end.
Keller chooses two beautiful songs from my favorite album, American Beauty. The first is “Attics Of My Life,” which works really well with just piano and vocals. It’s totally gorgeous. And it’s always been the lyrics that really drive this one. “In the attics of my life, full of cloudy dreams unreal/Full of tastes no tongue can know, and lights no eyes can see.” The other is “Brokedown Palace,” another excellent choice for this album, as it’s a sweet tune that lends itself well to this arrangement. Keller does add a bit of a groove to his vocal performance on lines like “Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”
Also included on this album is “Althea,” a gorgeous song with a reference to Hamlet in the lines, “You may meet the fate of Ophelia, sleeping and perchance to dream.” This one might be my favorite from this collection. Keller Williams really nails it, his voice smooth, and the piano sounding just exactly right.
“Wharf Rat” is another of my favorite Grateful Dead songs. On this one, I did sort of miss other instruments, because that great build before “I’ll get up and fly away” is my favorite moment of the song, and it’s absent from this version, as it’s impossible to do without a full band. Still, it’s an interesting take on the song.
Keller does a piano solo on “Bird Song” (in place of the jam), and it’s really nice. On “Row Jimmy,” Keller does a silly thing with his voice, as if imitating other instruments, just after the line, “Don’t you run off no more.” It’s off-putting, actually sounding a bit like a chicken. That silliness is out of place in a song like this. Other than that, this is a nice version.
“Can’t Come Down” is probably the most interesting and unusual choice on this album. It’s an early song the Grateful Dead did before they ever recorded an album. Also, it’s more of a rock song, and it’s odd to hear this one with just piano and vocals. The title is obviously a reference to tripping, and Keller does add an effect to a portion of his vocal performance, to give a trippy feel to the lines, “They say I've begun to lose my grip/My hold on reality is starting to slip/They tell me to get off this trip,” but it doesn’t quite work.
“Touch Of Grey,” the collection’s concluding track, is another interesting choice, as it’s one of the more upbeat tunes. But Keller takes it down a few notches, the results being that the song seems more thoughtful, more directly comforting in a way. Certainly it’s an interesting take. It is odd to hear only a single voice on “We will get by” at the end.
- He’s Gone
- Can’t Come Down
- Terrapin Station
- Attics Of My Life
- Brokedown Palace
- Wharf Rat
- Bird Song
- Row Jimmy
- Touch Of Grey
Keys is available only as a download. It was released on February 12, 2013.
By the way, there have been other Grateful Dead cover albums in recent years that benefited the Rex Foundation. In 2010, a compilation titled Jerry Jams For Rex was released (featuring bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident and Phish), and in 2011 Jerry Jams For Rex II was released. Then last year, Run For The Roses: Celebrating The Music Of Jerry Garcia,Robert Hunter And The Jerry Garcia Band was released in April. All of those releases were benefits for the Rex Foundation.