Interesting covers are nothing new in the bluegrass world. There are bluegrass covers of Prince’s “1999”, Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart, Hayseed Dixie did a whole album of AC/DC covers, and who can forget Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven?”
The ubiquitous one man jam band Keller Williams has teamed up with Larry and Jenny Keel for an all bluegrass album titled “Grass.” It is an interesting mix of original tunes and covers from the likes of Pink Floyd, Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, amongst others.
Keller Williams solo is a something of a minor miracle. Playing a variety of instruments including a 12 string guitar modified into a 10 string instrument, bass and synthesizers he creates a rainbow of sounds by looping them all together on delay system.
The Keel’s add some nice flavors to the music creating a more organic sound than Keller normally creates as a solo player. The pickin’ and a grinnin’ is nothing but sunshine. The trio play some mean bluegrass and are obviously having a great time doing it.
Keller, being the smart arsed clown that he is, just can’t stop himself from tweaking the covers he chooses. So we get “Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown” which is a creative mixing up of the two Tom Petty tunes, and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Loser” bookended by the chorus of Beck’s song of the same name. Both work better than they have any right to.
The low spot is the Pink Floyd cover “Another Brick in the Wall.” While the playing there remains solid, gone is the dark cynicism of the original version. Pink Floyd play the song with a sneer towards the horror of elementary school. Keller plays it with a wink and a smile at how clever he is for doing such an interesting cover but misses the soul of the song.
The standouts are the three original Keller Williams tunes. The album opener “Goofballs” is a fast, hilarious ode to the drug induced road trip. With lyrics like
Rockin' it, never stoppin' it,
Cap'n Kirk and Spock'n it
Transforming the road into the holodeck
Crunchin' it and punchin' it, casually lunchin' it
Doin' what you can to avoid the wreck
it’s hard not to smile like a freight train.
The other two self-penned tracks, “Crater in the “Backyard” and “Local” contain the same type of smart-allecked lyrics and jubilant melodies.
“Dupree’s Diamond Blues” might just be better than the original Grateful Dead version. There is a lightness of touch and buoyancy in Keller’s version that the Dead could never muster.
“Grass” is a jubilant touch of newgrass that for the most part will satisfy my bluegrass needs until the next summer festival.