It’s easy to forget that Williams started out simply as a guitar-playing singer/songwriter, and it was the strength of those songs and playing that drew his early audiences, so in some respects this is a return to his roots. Backing Keel’s hummingbird-fast soloing, Williams demonstrates incredibly propulsive rhythm chops on his custom Veilette mini 12-string. The interplay between the three musicians is almost Zen-like in its ease and comfort.
The aptly titled “Goof Balls” opens things with a little tour diary narrative of late nights, gigs and gas station food. Williams’ vocal delivery is as warm and laid back as ever.
The second half of the instrumental jam is a prime example of just how well these guys can push and play off each other — and indicates potential for more good stuff to come. Keel’s instrumental prowess is nothing new to report. He’s unafraid to take his lines outside the underlying harmony, and that adds depth and surprise to the listening experience.
The first of several mutated covers appears in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” This sets up the question: How can these guys take a rock song and make it bluegrass and still turn it out OK, but when somebody else does it, the results kind of suck? The answer: lack of pretense.
Williams and the Keels aren’t playing characters. It’s not meant as a clever joke, and they stretch the song any way they want it to go. It’s more of an interpretation, more of a reading than a cover. Williams takes a harmonically challenging, rhythmic solo here that’s a great foil for Keel’s atmospheric single note lead.
“Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown,” a medley of the Tom Petty classics, turns out goofy, but there’s still an authenticity to the delivery that saves it from parody.
Several covers follow, including the Garcia/Hunter collaborations “Loser” (which mixes in a little of Beck’s tune of the same title) and “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” The former is one of the only places where the silliness detracts from the purpose of the song with the Beck quote serving no real purpose other than being a clever and convenient thematic reference.
Instrumentally, however, the mood they set for the song is perfect — thick, brooding and melancholy. And there’s the obligatory reference to the “local out-door organic” later on “Local.” Your guess is as good as mine on that one. Probably apples or broccoli or something like that.
Listing the highlights of each song would just take too much space and time, so let’s leave it at this: Grass works where so many other similar projects just don’t. Maybe it’s the caliber of the musicians; maybe the choice of material, or the fact that the fun and connection made between Williams and the Keels is obvious on each track. Likely it’s all of the above.
Those hoping for more of the Williams looping extravaganza will be sorely disappointed here, but those willing to look beyond that — and fans of Keel’s imaginative and tasty fretwork — will be happily rewarded. Possibly the first mandatory CD purchase of the spring/summer “crank it up and drive around” season. 4.6798 stars, exactly.