Grateful Grass and Grateful Gospel: Making festival mornings brighter

Article & Photos by Eric Rayburn

Mornings at most music festivals are usually reserved for nursing hangovers, struggling to find coffee or trying your best to sleep in, despite the noise your neighbors insist on making. The organizers at this years Lockn’ Festival did their best to make mornings a bit brighter. At 11 am on Friday, Saturday and Sunday Fredricksburg, Virginia’s own Keller Williams opened the day with special sets of Grateful Dead inspired bluegrass.

“The Lockn’ shows were super fun,” Williams said. “I rarely get a chance to go to festivals for more than five hours at a time so that was a real treat.”

Friday and Saturday saw Williams’ Grateful Grass perform while Sunday morning he took the festivarians to church with a performance by Grateful Gospel.

This version of Grateful Grass consisted of Williams on guitar and vocals along with Jeff Austin (mandolin and vocals), Keith Moseley of The String Cheese Incident (bass) Jason Carter of the Travelin’ McCourys (fiddle) and Jay Starling on dobro. An earlier version saw Michael Kang of String Cheese join Williams, Austin and Moseley for a performace that was recorded and recently released as “Dos.” All proceeds from the sale of “Dos” are going to the Rex Foundation, the charity set up by the Grateful Dead in 1983 in honor of longtime crewmember Rex Jackson.

“A few years ago I was set to play the Fillmore in Denver,” Williams explained. “I called on Keith and Jeff, who live in the area, and they jumped right on board.”

Friday’s set started with a rousing “Cold Rain and Snow” followed by “Jack Straw”, which is usually sung by Bob Weir. Williams mentioned Weir and sent the song out to him in his absence. Weir was scheduled to perform at the festival, but had to pull out for unannounced reasons. Next, a jammy “Jack-a-Roe” led into a slow, shuffling “Sugaree.”

The crowd that packed into the shady Triangle Stage area wasn’t afraid to sing right along to every word of every song as the music of the Grateful Dead was presented in string band fashion.

“Playing bluegrass versions of Dead songs is like skinny dipping to me,” Williams said, “in that it makes sense, feels good and is totally natural. Plus I suspect Jerry would have liked it. Skinny dipping that is!”

Austin took over vocals on a “Loose Lucy” that featured Starling’s dobro licks. The morning concluded with a fantastic rendition of “Shakedown Street”.
Saturday’s set continued the vibe from the previous morning with covers of “One More Saturday Night”, “Althea”, “Scarlet Begonias” and ending with a ten minute jam on “Bertha”.

“The first and third sets I played over the weekend were probably more crowded,” Williams said. “But the second seemed probably more relaxed.”

Sunday morning found “Brother” Williams, dressed in a black suit and tie (but still without shoes), bring a new group to the stage for Grateful Gospel. Fronted by singers from Williams’ band More Than a Little and featuring Furthur’s John Kadlecik on guitar, the music of the Dead was given a gospel edge.

Starting with “We Bid You Goodnight” the band moved through a number of Dead classics including “Ripple”,  “Samson and Delilah” and a “Eyes of the World>Feel Like a Stranger” that encompassed 23 minutes and allowed John K. to stretch out as he would with Furthur. Garcia Band favorite “My Sisters and Brothers” closed the set, which also included an epic cover of “Mighty High”, a 1975 R&B tune originally sung by the gospel band Mighty Clouds of Joy that JGB played about 20 times in 1976.

“I think it turned out really well,” Williams said afterward. “(It) is probably perfect for a Sunday morning festival slot. At Lockn’ it seemed to really suit the vibe of the crowd. I would most definitely do it again- no fear here.”

More than once fans were heard in the crowd saying “If church was like this, I’d go more often!” Williams said he likes to think the crowd connects with his loose interpretations because he’s one of them.

“I’m a music lover first, a musician second and a songwriter third,” he said.

Next up for WIlliams is a trip to the studio for a new solo record, one with which he hopes to break new ground.

“I’m going for an acoustic dance music vibe or what I like to call ‘ADM’,” he said. “I think of it as super funky beats underneath huge acoustic upright bass filled in with acoustic instruments. My idea is to create a record of something I’d listen to as opposed to just what I play- which isn’t always what I’m listening to.”

He also is slated to “cross something off the bucket list” when he joins Dead/Furthur bassist Phil Lesh onstage at the Capital Theater November 21 and 22 and a member of Phil and Friends. Can we expect some “grassed-up” versions of Dead songs?

“I’m extremely excited and nervous about playing the Capitol Theater with Phil, although bluegrass isn’t likely for those shows,” he said. “I am hoping for pure color coming from the speakers as we have improvised musical conversations.”

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