Music by Scott Martin

SM Blog

2/23/2013: Keller Williams at Mister Small’s


I was fortunate to see several live shows in 2013. This is the first of a few posts about my experiences. It’s not a review (there are undoubtedly plenty of those out there) – it’s just my recollection.

I had seen Keller Williams before on a couple occasions (at the Outer Banks Brewing Station in North Carolina, and at the Beachland Ballroom here in Cleveland), and enjoyed the shows despite my general aversion to jam band / hippie music.

Image from
Image from

If you haven’t seen him perform, it’s pretty impressive: the stage has a bass on a stand, a kooky looking drum machine on a stand, and various guitars and percussion instruments set up. Keller goes up onstage playing his acoustic guitar, and using a loop pedal he begins to build up fully arranged songs one instrument at a time.

He’ll loop some guitar, then move over to the drum pad and add drums, then add bass, then perhaps percussion. Then he’ll sing a song and solo over it, bringing parts in and out with his foot pedals. His sound man provides backing vocals. It’s pretty mind-blowing to watch.

The OBX show happened at the end of a beach vacation and Hellpellet was incredibly excited to see Keller perform, so we went to the show (and immediately afterward got on the road to Ohio, which made for a looong night). I was impressed by his musicianship and the fact that a single artist on the stage can captivate the crowd all night. I also dug many of the songs that he played, and even wound up discovering a new instrument that I’ve used on some DD69 songs.

Having seen him once, and knowing that Uncle Crappy and Mrs. Crappy are fans, I snapped up some tickets when I saw him scheduled to play at the Beachland Ballroom here in Cleveland in 2011. The show was much fun for everyone, and although I didn’t recognize all of the music, there were several covers and originals that kept me interested.

So, as a kind of holiday gift, Hellpellet got us tickets to go see him play in Pittsburgh at Mister Small’s theater on Feburary 23, 2013. I was excited because I grew up in Pittsburgh, I hadn’t yet been to Mister Small’s though I’d heard about it several times, and because we would be going to the show with the Crappys. We also got a room at the Priory Hotel, which was fantastic and only a few miles from the venue.

I came down with a nasty cold just before that weekend, but figured I would medicate myself through the festivities. Uncle Crappy picked us up at the hotel and we headed to the show.┬áMister Smalls is housed in an old church in Millvale, which is just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. It has a kind of old-timey downtown vibe and probably hasn’t changed much since I was a kid.

The show was sold out, but we had gotten tickets well in advance and were able to head right on in. The inside of Mister Small’s is pretty groovy – there’s still a church-like feeling to the large open room, and old doors line the upper levels of each side serving as acoustic baffles. The room is high-ceilinged and open, with the back half separated by a waist-high wall. The back part of the room is where alcohol is served, and has a small bar on each side. That part of the room filled up pretty quickly.

In fact, the whole room filled up. A lot. Like maybe-they-sold-a-few-extra-tickets a lot. Pretty soon it we were packed in like the proverbial sardines, and navigating from one spot to another was an exercise in asses and elbows. We got somewhat situated near the mixing board and tried to ignore the sluggish tide of people squeezing around us.

Keller started right on time, as he had done at the previous shows I’d seen. For that alone I give him major points. He worked his way through the construction of several jams, interweaving songs and lyrics throughout. In fact, he almost never stopped playing – even when briefly talking to the crowd he did so in his sing-song fashion.

After the first set we decided to get a little breathing room and navigated our way up to stage left during the short break. By the wall there was a little bit of room, and when Keller came back for the second set the sound was a little better. There were a few people that must have been tripping balls because they continuously pushed their ay up to the front of the crowd, then circulated back to the back of the room. It was a little distracting.

At that point I realized that the smoke machines on stage were working overtime, and my cold symptoms were getting aggravated by the smoke hanging in the air. I was coughing so much that I couldn’t even enjoy the funk and reggae grooves that Keller was creating out of thin air.

Meanwhile, Hellpellet was slowly getting crushed by a few skinny, gyrating girls. It was kind of like the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, except with an acoustic guitar jam going on and hippie chicks instead of trash. Uh, just picture it.

So regretfully I suggested that we work our way out of the room. I knew we’d miss a couple songs, but I couldn’t take a breath without coughing, and I had almost completely lost my voice. We snaked through the crowd and got out into some blessed fresh air.

Overall the night was fun. It seemed like Keller was a little lower energy than the other two shows I had seen, and there was more extended jamming as opposed to clearly defined songs. But that’s all part of live music, and I’m sure he was feeding off the vibe from the crowd and doing what felt groovy.

I look forward to seeing him again, hopefully without a cold (and without an unending supply of smoke machines).