Review: Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass at Bell’s Beer Garden in 2015

105979_lgKeller Williams’ Grateful Grass
Saturday, August 22, 2015
Bell’s Beer Garden, Kalamazoo, MI

“Sure is nice to be hanging out in the Garden with Keller Williams, friends.” Just five songs into their 15 song set, that’s how Jeff Austin kicked off a wild version of the Grateful Dead’s “Loose Lucy”. 1,200 people hooted and hollered in agreement.

It was a beautiful summer night in Michigan, and everybody was having a good time. Most of the night it was like a Grateful Dead singalong – hundreds of people singing along with the band. The unique element here, of course, was that these weren’t regular Grateful Dead covers. No, they were bluegrassified versions of Grateful Dead songs, performed lovingly by a talented trio of musicians. The crowd just couldn’t get enough.

Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass is a slimmed down, three piece bluegrass band – Keller Williams on acoustic guitar, Reed Mathis on electric bass, and Jeff Austin on mandolin. The band has included additional players at other shows, but these three appear to be the core. And to be truthful, I prefer the three piece approach here. It’s a structure that gives them plenty of opportunity to shine, and each of them is an outstanding player.

gratefulgrassGrateful Grass – Reed Mathis, Keller Williams, and Jeff Austin – at Gathering Of The Vibes in 2014

Keller Williams is a brilliant artist, and there’s nobody else like him in the music world. He’s a unique acoustic guitar player, with a regular guy stage presence that’s very engaging. He played a solo set before the longer Grateful Grass set that followed. Jeff Austin, previously of Yonder Mountain String  Band, is an incredible mandolin player. He has his own band as well. And he can sing! One of the highlights of the night was when he starting belting out the first verse of “Loose Lucy”. For those few minutes, he lived that song. It was about the most soulful bluegrass singing I’ve heard. Reed Mathis expertly laid down the solid bluegrass bass lines the music required. He’s rock steady, and a strong soloist as well. And a product of Michigan’s own Interlochen.

The band played an eclectic mix of Grateful Dead songs that included some rarities like “Passenger”, and a lot of popular Dead tunes like “Friend Of The Devil” and “Bertha” (take a look at the setlist at the end of this review for all the songs they played). The arrangements for some of the songs were unique enough that I wasn’t entirely sure what the song was until they got to the first verse – “One More Saturday Night” and “Passenger” are two good examples. The only song to clock in under four minutes was “Samson and Delilah”. Songs like “Eyes Of The World” had solos from each of the players. Keller was the only one to use any effects pedals, and he used them rarely, but to good effect. They genuinely seemed to enjoy playing together, and there wasn’t a sour note the entire night.

This was my first time seeing a show at Bell’s Beer Garden, and I was suitably impressed. It’s a popular outdoor venue in SW Michigan with a 1,200 person capacity, adjacent to Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. So there’s good food to eat before the show, and great beer to consume during the show. And it’s a very intimate outdoor venue. The stage is elevated, but not too high. There’s a barrier between the stage and the audience, sure, but the band feels closer to the audience than at a lot of similarly sized venues. Artists seem to like it, too. Greensky Bluegrass – who started out in Kalamazoo – have been opening the Garden each spring for years, and the show invariably sells out. Keller finished the show saying how much he loved playing Bell’s Beer Garden, and that he hoped he and his friends would be able to come back again. I hope so, too.

Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass Setlist:

  1. One More Saturday Night
  2. Shakedown Street
  3. Eyes Of The World
  4. Cold Rain And Snow
  5. Loose Lucy
  6. Brown Eyed Woman
  7. Passenger
  8. Feel Like A Stranger
  9. Sugaree
  10. Samson And Delilah
  11. New Speedway Boogie
  12. Friend Of The Devil
  13. Fire On The Mountain
  14. Scarlet Begonias
  15. Encore: Bertha

A special bonus: Here’s Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass performing “Scarlet Begonias” at Gathering Of The Vibes in 2014. It should give you a flavor of what we saw at Bell’s Beer Garden. It’s also where I snagged the photo above (I didn’t have my camera with me at this show).