Featured Interview – Dave Keller

imageDave Keller isn’t your ordinary bluesman. A late-bloomer who didn’t start singing until he was in his 20s, he’s tall, trim pleasant man who looks more like your next-door neighbor or local businessman – until he opens his mouth, and then…

Wow!

Close your eyes when he starts vocalizing and you’ll think you’re listening to someone who grew up in the presence of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Solomon Burke or O.V. Wright on Beale Street. And man, you couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Although he’s grown familiar with the red-clay world that gave birth to those giants, he actually hails from the gently rolling hills and rocky soil of Vermont – something that becomes insignificant the moment he breaks into song.

A warm, well-spoken man and deep thinker who’s also a rock-solid guitar player, Keller has been paying his dues through most of his adult life, finally earning his place in the forefront of the music through perseverance and receiving multiple Blues Music Awards nominations for his efforts. But as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, it almost didn’t happen.

Known now for his stellar songwriting skills and dynamic stage performance, he’s comfortable in multiple settings – everything from nine-piece bands with full horn sections to a stripped-down three-piece and playing solo acoustic on National steel guitar, too. In band settings, his powerful pipes charm enthusiastic audiences as he wanders through the crowd, accompanying himself on six-string without a mic.

A bluesman with a deep love for Southern soul and soul-blues, Keller’s only a Southerner at heart, having grown up in Worcester, Mass., a working-class city about 40 miles west of Boston, which helped welcome in the Industrial age in the 1800s. His mother has a beautiful voice and loves to sing, but has never done anything with it. But his father loved to spend Sundays on the sofa listening to opera and symphonies and attending them live when he could. They both encouraged Dave to pursue music.

A self-described “sensitive person who’s always felt the need to be creative…to persist until I reach my goals,” Dave took violin lessons “for a minute” in third grade – like many nice Jewish kids in that era — before turning to piano, then — finally — guitar for the first time at age 16.

“I went to my first concert at 11 and saw Styx at Boston Garden,” he recalls. “I was into a lot of different bands, but didn’t discover any black music until discovering Jimi Hendrix – and that didn’t happen until I was in college.”

He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. – a non-denominational college founded under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. An English major, he spent all of his free time trying to figure out what Jimi was doing on the strings. “But I couldn’t make any headway,” Keller remembers.

“Then I read this book about Hendrix’s life and about how he went to Chicago to meet his idols…Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and people like that. So I said: ‘If the blues is good enough for Jimi Hendrix, it’s good enough for me!’”

He started tuning in regularly to the blues show on campus radio station WESU-FM, got hooked and went out to buy his first blues album, something, he says now, was a bit of a disaster because “it must be the worst one ever produced.” Entitled The Super Duper Blues Band and released on Chess’ Checker sister label in 1967, it was a disquieting six-song collaboration recorded by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley, all superstars in the field. Unfortunately, however, they did more joking around than making music in the six-song set.

“I almost gave up at that point,” Keller says, “but then I picked up a copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s One Way Out. Everything about it — his voice, his energy and the meaningfulness of his lyrics – was great. This was the ‘80s, and most of the popular music – Madonna, Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats — was vapid. I needed something deeper to connect with my own feelings, and that was it!”

He was hooked. In his junior year, friends asked him to join their band, he says, simply because he owned a guitar. “I knew some basic bar chords and the blues scale,” he remembers. It was mostly a cover band called Cup O’Pizza that did punk renditions of Madonna tunes, swing renditions of punk tunes, and we had a lot of fun.”

Admittedly shy, a little introverted and aware he wasn’t a polished performer, Dave found that he actually enjoyed being on stage, adding: “I got so into the blues that I started taking lessons from Jon Geiger, who was going to Berklee College of Music at the time, who later made a name for himself in Austin before setting in L.A.

“He was super influential, my guru really. We’d sit the floor of his apartment and listen to B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Albert King records, dissecting them and just playing back and forth.”

imageDave started hosting a pre-dawn blues show on the college station, getting deep into the voices of Albert King, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and country bluesmen Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White and Barbecue Bob, too. His record collection grew quickly supplemented by tapes of LPs borrowed from the station library.

His interest in the guitar amplified when he discovered Ronnie Earl while on the job one morning. “We were close to a local prison,” Keller says, “and we’d get requests. One day, this guy called and asked if I’d play Ronnie’s song, ‘Baby Doll Blues.’ I’d never played him — basically because I was turned off by the overflowing ashtrays, shot glasses and naked women on playing cards on the covers of his early albums – something I learned when Ronnie and I became friends later that he didn’t even want himself.

“I threw the record on and was just blown away. It’s a long, deep instrumental, and he just builds it and builds it, brings it down and brings it back up. I’d never heard anything like it.”

Dozens of top acts played clubs in the corridor between New York and Beantown, giving Dave the opportunity to catch Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Johnny Copeland, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Ronnie and several others in action. He’s still holding on to a list of everyone he saw back then today.

“And after graduation, I moved to Boston and saw Son Seals and Albert Collins, and Ronnie everywhere he played,” he recalls, watching him go into the audience using a 50-foot guitar cord and amazing audiences with spectacular, deep runs. “Once I saw him live, I said to myself: ‘That’s what I want to do!’ My dream for years and years was one day being up on stage and playing with him. I was 40 when I finally got to do it.”

Thanks to the schooling from Geiger and the inspiration he absorbed from LPs, Dave formed his own group, The Rhythm Method, in his senior year. But his first opportunity to play with a professional blues band came after sitting in with veteran vocalist Nate Simmons and his band, Gravy Hands, at jams in Middletown.

“It was great,” Keller says of the experience. “And then, one day, I got a call from him. His guitar player couldn’t make a gig, and he wanted me to fill in. The band came over and rehearsed in the basement of my house off-campus. They ran through some Lazy Lester, some Muddy, some Chuck Berry, and then we played the Rainbow Lounge in Moodus, Conn. – a real nightclub.

“It had red leather booths, and I was so taken with it. I was a fairly sheltered Jewish kid from the suburbs, and people were lettin’ loose, dancin’ and having a great time. It felt very real, in the moment and very honest – something that I hadn’t experienced very much before.”

Welcome to the blues! Keller made $25 for the gig and spent it all on flowers for his girlfriend.

“After the gig, I gave the harp player a ride home,” he remembers. “He was a crazy guy who told me some crazy, crazy stories…about him shooting up his girlfriend and her almost dying and other stuff. To me, it was another world!”

Dave was living in the suburb of Cambridge a few miles from downtown Boston when he decided to start another band. His apartment was down the street from Johnny D’s, the club where Monster Mike Welch’s parents were taking him to jam when he was 12 years old. Keller posted a note on the club’s bulletin board and soon hooked up with another veteran musician, Reggie Taylor.

A cousin to ‘60s blues/R&B star Jimmy McCracklin, Taylor had been a childhood gospel singer. He’d worked extensively with T-Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton on the West Coast, but had been out of the music business for a decade after suffering a severe back injury in a wreck while on the road. “He was 49 or 50 with a real physical presence and unusual voice – deep when he was speaking and high when he sang,” Dave recalls. “He was forming a band, too, and wanted me to be his guitar player.”

Soon after, Keller joined a lineup that included keyboard player Eric “Two Scoops” Moore – now a fixture in Seattle who’s also worked with Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and Earring George Mayweather — as well as a couple of Berklee professors.

“Reggie was my first mentor in the blues world,” Keller says. “We were great friends, but it didn’t take him and the other guys too long to figure out that I was the weak link. It really broke his heart when the other guys teamed up on him, told him it was either me or them and he asked me to go get some guitar lessons and come back another time (laughs)!”

Knowing that he was still young and green, Dave took the firing to heart. He was about to relocate to Colville, Wash., as a VISTA volunteer – now AmeriCorps – but started studying with the beloved Paul Rishell, one of the finest acoustic guitarists on the planet. They met one night when Rishell opened for Ronnie.

At the time, Keller was concerned that, once he moved West, he might not find any blues lovers for jams. He figured he’d have to play solo gigs, and was driven to improve both his playing and vocal skills so he could do it. Rishell helped him learn several old Delta, Piedmont and Texas tunes to accomplish the goal.

Once in the former fur trading outpost on the upper Columbia River, he says, he spent lunch hours driving to a hillside on the outskirts of town, where he sat on the hood of his car and performed along with Son House and Ray Charles tapes as well as the Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds and other gospel quartets — another passion.

“I was teaching myself to sing, and just loved the melding of their voices,” he says of the gospel acts. “What was cool was that there was always a place for my voice within those other voices.

image“If you’re trying to learn by following the melody of one person, good luck! It’s difficult because your voice might be a little higher or lower in range. But if you sing along with quartets, there’s always a place to fit in – especially when they’re doing a call-and-response.”

Despite the prowess Keller exhibits today, he says he really didn’t recognize his own singing talent until he reached his 40s. “In college bands and a long time after that,” he insists – something hard to believe after hearing him perform.

“There’s this thing in America where some people think that if you’re not a prodigy when you’re young, you’re never gonna have it,” he adds. “But the reality is that there are prodigies and also folks who develop the talent after working on it for a long time to build it up – something we’re not encouraged to do.

“My true talent was my enthusiasm. From 20 to 30, I wouldn’t listen to anything if it wasn’t a blues record or radio show or live performance. I was completely one-minded about it because that’s what I loved. I was a kid from the Massachusetts suburbs. If I wanted to sing the blues, I really had to study it.

“The brain’s like a sponge and you soak it all in. When you go to sing or play guitar, it’s like you’re squeezing that sponge. It sounds kinda funny, but I didn’t want to soak up any pop influences.”

Keller resettled in Vermont a year later to be closer to his family, performing solo and working day jobs before forming a band again in ’96. They had a regular biweekly gig at a joint near the University of Vermont campus, where they made “$200 a night and all the beer and pizza they could eat.”

Two years later, one of his friends was booking a festival in New Hampshire, and Dave suggested that he add Mighty Sam McClain – someone he considered to be the “finest soul and blues singer in the world” — to the lineup, knowing the Louisiana-born vocalist was now living in the Green Mountain State.

A performer on the chittlin circuit from age 13 and best known for the song “Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whisky),” McClain passed in 2015, leaving behind a legacy that included recording in Muscle Shoals in the ‘60s, performances at Lincoln Center in New York, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., international tours, about 20 albums and multiple Blues Music Awards nominations.

Keller made the recommendation with one stipulation, he says. “I told him that if you do hire him, you’ve got to let me open for him, and I don’t care if I get paid.”

After meeting Sam and his wife, Sandra, Dave gave them a copy of his first CD, the long-out-of-print, self-produced Faith. “One of my favorite moments of my life,” he says, “was getting out of the shower one day and seeing the light beeping on my answering machine. I hit the button, and there’s Mighty Sam McClain tellin’ me how much he enjoyed my record and sayin’ he and Sandra were dancin’ around the kitchen to it.”

It was the beginning of a close friendship in which McClain became a major teacher and supporter, encouraging Dave throughout his struggles and offering up guidance wherever he could about both the music world and life in general. “A lot of it was spiritual, too,” Keller says. “’Everything in God’s time,’ he’d tell me. ‘He might not come when you want, but He’ll always come on time!’”

Another mentor is soul-blues giant Johnny Rawls, a relationship that began about a decade ago when they met at the Vermont Blues Festival. After the show, Johnny invited him to sit in on guitar at in a jam at a ski lodge for booked artists even though Keller hadn’t been part on the bill.

“We’re playin’ some up-tempo song,” Dave says, “and he motions for me to take a solo. I was nervous, and the room was packed. I start playin’, and Johnny immediately tells the band: ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ He says: ‘Hold on, Dave.’

“The whole band drops to a whisper, and Johnny’s like: ‘Too many notes, Dave. Too many notes. Try three. Or four, maybe.’”

It’s a lesson that Keller understands today, he says, noting: “Whoever came up with this idea that faster is better…it doesn’t make any sense. It’s whoever moves you. That’s what’s important!”

Despite the inauspicious start, Dave quickly calmed down and delivered a well-received, soulful solo. Obviously pleased, Rawls kept him up for the entire show, even letting him front the band for a couple of songs while he took a break. At the end of the night, Johnny looked over his shoulder and said: “Stay in touch, Dave. I might need you.”

Now close friends, Keller’s band usually back Rawls when he tours New England, a relationship that began at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Maine, the largest event of its kind on the East Coast. They played with a set list that Dave saw briefly before Johnny snatched from his hand for himself because he didn’t have another copy. Instead, he offered up the simple advice: “When you get the groove, don’t never change it!”

image“I’m very grateful for all the lessons,” Keller says. “Johnny tells me: ‘The stuff I’m showin’ you, man, other people aren’t goin’ to have what you have because you’re learning it directly from me – and I learned it directly from O.V. Wright, Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex.’ And he’s right!”

Another guiding light was the late guitarist Robert Ward, a founding father of the Ohio Untouchables, the group that evolved into the Ohio Players, one of the foremost R&B bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, after he left. A truly distinctive blues artist who recorded powerful, distinctive albums for both Black Top and Delmark, he and Dave met when Keller and his ex-wife hired him to play their wedding in 2000. They became close after the lovebirds spent time with Ward and his huge family at his home in Dry Branch, Ga.

“Check out all the guitar players and you’ll find that no one sounds like Robert Ward,” Keller insists. “Our first dance was ‘Your Love Is Amazing,’ a song he wrote when he was 16. That moment was like dancing in a swirl of stars. His voice was so rich, his guitar sound…that vibrato in his fingers…it was beyond belief.

“There are very few guitar players who have truly a unique sound. Snooks Eaglin is one of them, and Robert is another. But most of the others today sound a good chunk like someone else. Even Stevie Ray Vaughan had a lot of Albert King and Hendrix in him.”

Sadly, that happy event proved to be Ward’s final gig. Sixty-two at the time, he suffered the first of multiple strokes about six months later, tragically trapping him in his body and barely able to communicate for the final eight years of his life.

Dave’s first footprints on the national blues scene came in 2010, when he guested on Earl’s BMA-nominated Living in the Light CD, singing several songs, some of which he composed with Ronnie. The hook-up occurred after a chance meeting that was truly an incident that showed the truth of Mighty Sam’s advice.

“My brother, Greg, called and told me that Stevie Wonder was going to play at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the Patriots play,” he remembers. “I went with him and my keyboard player, Ira Friedman. We walked in the gate and I see this guy right in front of me wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Marvin Gaye – War Is Not the Answer.’ I have that same T-shirt. I’d gotten it the year before from my mom for my birthday, and I’d never seen another one like it before or since.

“I look up to see who’s wearin’ it. This guy’s got these little rosy-colored spectacles, a little scruff and a little hat – and I thought: ‘That looks like Ronnie Earl!’

“I said: ‘Ronnie?’ And he goes: ‘Yes! Who are you?’ I coulda peed my pants! I was 40 and he’d been my idol for 20 years. For half my life, I’d been wanting to do what he was doing…trying to play with that much fire and that much soul. We got to talking, and he was super nice. He asked me about my band, and we exchanged info.

“I sent him a letter, thanking him for being my inspiration, and tucked in my CD, Play for Love. A couple of days later, my girls were having a play date in the backyard and I get this phone call: ‘Hi, Dave. This is Ronnie!’ I had butterflies…like somebody was going to ask you to the prom or somethin’.

“’I wanted to know that I got your lovely letter, and I really appreciate it,’ he says. ‘I’m going to listen to your CD. Have a great day!’”

Keller drove one of his kids’ friends home and returned to discover another message: “Hi Dave. It’s Ronnie. I just wanted you to know that I listened to your record and I just want you to know that it’s so-o-o… (long pause)…”

“It was like a life-and-death moment,” Keller recalls. “If he says something nice, I’m through the roof. If he doesn’t, it’s over (laughs).”

It was a blessing, he says, when Earl continued: “…Your music is so-o-o beautiful – and I hear myself playing on it. I’m gonna tell my record company about you, and I want people to hear you.”

After the release of the album and the success that followed, Dave made his first trip to Memphis for the ensuing BMA awards ceremony and realized – after following the music through publications and recordings for so many years – that the trip was proof that all of his devotion and effort had paid off.

But that night was only a hint of what was to come.

Dave’s interest in Southern soul kicked into high gear almost immediately as he plunged into the extensive catalog of Hi Records, the label whose roster has included everyone from Al Green and Ann Peebles to O.V. Wright and Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and dozens more.

Longing to recreate their sound in a modern form, Keller realized it’s virtually impossible for most musicians to remain objective about their own singing and playing. He needed a producer, and found one in Bob Perry. His work on an album he produced for The Revelations, a New York-based deep-soul group fronted by Tré Williams, immediately caught Keller’s ear.

“When I heard that record, it sounded like Hi, but a little more modern,” he says. “So I reached out to Bob, and he was interested in working with me.”

imageIt was a marriage made in heaven. Instead of new tunes, Perry insisted on doing an album that consisted solely of obscure soul covers. They dipped into the catalogs of some of the best tunesmiths ever – Arthur Alexander, Clarence Carter, George Jackson, Ward and Sir Mac Rice among them. The Revelations provided backing vocals, and the end result, Where I’m Coming From, was so polished and so evocative that it was crowned best self-produced album at the 2012 International Blues Challenge.

Their follow-up, Soul Changes, proved to be another treasure that made it to the finals in the soul-blues category at the 2014 BMAs. Recorded in Memphis, it features several originals, including “17 Years,” which was co-written with Darryl Carter, the same hit maker – and now friend – who’s responsible for the Wright standard “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” Bobby Womack’s “Remember, I’ve Been Good to You” and a whole lot more.

“That was a real experience!” Keller exclaims, because he also got to work with several of the biggest session players from Stax and Hi, including Charles, Leroy and Teenie Hodges, the brothers who were all members of the original Hi Rhythm Section with dozens of gold and platinum albums to their credit.

“I never thought I’d ever get anything like that,” Dave says. “And what made it all the more special was that my Vermont fans funded most of it through a Kickstarter campaign.”

Dave’s next studio effort, Every Soul’s a Star, was supervised by Grammy-winner Jim Gaines and was released on Catfood Records, the same label on which Rawls records – a partnership that came about through Johnny’s introduction. An all-original set save for one cover, it was a BMA finalist last year.

“I love Jim,” Keller says. “He’s such a sweet guy, and he’s hilarious. He refers to himself as ‘the picky bastard,’ and he really is. But he knows what’s good, and he’s got a great ear and great ideas, coming up with the exact thing that brings a song together. What I really learned from him was believing and trusting in yourself.”

Another album, Live at the Killer Guitar Thriller!, followed just prior to the onset of COVID-19. Released on Keller’s Tastee-Tone imprint, it was captured by a member of the audience on a stereo mic at an event sponsored by the Bucks County Blues Society in suburban Philadelphia. A complete departure from his previous efforts, it features more guitar and straight-ahead blues than Dave usually performs. The recording quality proved so good despite ambient crowd noise on occasion that he decided he just had to release it.

Despite the extended shutdown, Keller’s remained extremely busy, assembling a project that even more different. It’s a collection of 13 duets entitled You Get What You Give, and just about everything was recorded long-distance with some of the biggest names and some of the best unknown voices in the business.

The set features Dave at the mic with Rawls, Trudy Lynn, Joe Louis Walker, Annika Chambers-DesLauriers, Annie Mack and Dawn Tyler Watson as well as Brother Bob White, Carly Harvey, Toussaint St. Negritude, Katie Henry and Chad Hollister, and all proceeds will be targeted to causes that promote racial equality and justice.

The vocalists are backed by musicians from across the U.S. and Canada, and the roster includes Mark Earley, Ben Collette, Rock Romano, Francois Thiffault, Matt Patrick, Scott Petito, Paul DesLauriers, David Gorozdos and Chris Burns, among others, all of whom recorded from home and donated their efforts to the cause. Keller’s regular band – Friedman on keys, Jay Gleason on drums and Alex Budney on bass –worked at a safe distance as they laid down their parts in a studio in Vermont.

The scheme came together when Dave found himself one morning awoke and troubled by both his own inability to tour and because of the protests and occurring across the nation following the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I thought that as a blues musician, as a white musician who’s made his whole career out of playing black music and whose mentors for the most part were black, it was time for me to give back,” he says. “It’s my way of telling people it’s time to step up and do good stuff instead of just sitting back and clicking ‘like’ on their computers.

“It’s important for not just black people to be talking about these issues and making their voices heard. White people need to be by their side in support and to make it known that we need to bring about change in this country.

“Systemic racism is real. Anyone who says it isn’t… I don’t want to put people down, but you need to listen to your black sisters and brothers and believe their stories because are not making this stuff up. People need to believe black voices. And those of us who have learned from and benefited from the blues culture, owe a debt to help make the world a more just place.”

Keller had written several tunes since his most recent studio album and knew they “were just sitting there,” so he decided to donate them to the cause. “I put out the concept on social media,” he says, “and it immediately started blowing up. And once I came up with the idea of doing duets, I wanted to include people who aren’t well-known to try and help them out, too.”

Like the overall message of the CD, he says, they also deserve to be heard, but don’t have money or promoters behind them. Every penny of the proceeds with be going to groups that include the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Jus’ Blues Foundation and several other, lesser known organizations that support the cause. If you’d like to hear some great tunes and help out, too, the album is available as a CD or digital download by visiting www.davekeller.bandcamp.com.

A humble man who shares custody of two young daughters, Keller’s looking forward to getting back on the road, something he doesn’t do as much as others because of a life situation he wouldn’t trade for the world. He’s deeply grateful for the opportunities he’s received through the support and encouragement of his fan base.

Last March, he was in the midst of a Southern tour when the shutdown came, and looking forward to his first-ever European tour. Those dates are tentatively rescheduled for next spring, but Dave’s raring to go. Check out Dave’s tunes and where, hopefully, he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.davekeller.com.

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