KM Williams enjoys the best of several worlds. The 56- year-old bluesman hails from Texas and incorporates much of the roots of the Deep South, with its primordial energies and vibes that feed off the beginnings of the genre. But Williams also channels his onstage and studio output through some far more contemporary and, dare it be said, artificial means.
Williams will offer local blues devotees an opportunity to groove to his infectious bonhomie and captivating vocals and instrumental offerings at concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem between January 10 and 12.
Besides wowing audiences worldwide with his honest take on the blues, Williams has another, religion-oriented, side to his life, although he says his avenues of dissemination are opposite sides of the same coin.
“I’m an ordained priest, and Ive often said that I believe gospel music and the blues are from the same family tree,” he explains. “It’s the same stuff, the same blood bind, in my opinion. The only difference is the situations they talk about. The gospel music is more inspirational and gives you hope. It’s about the hope that things will work out.
Blues music is based on reality – what you do, what you’re dealing with right now. Sometimes the blues doesn’t give answers, it just asks questions, but that can be a sort of release, too.”
The latter discipline, notes Williams, is nourished by the way things are in the heartland of the blues. “Things in the South can be tough – it can be hard to make a living, there can be prejudice, and there are a lot of struggles and failures. Emotionally, you’re talking about very deep emotions, and those feelings come out in the music.”
They certainly come across in Williams’s delivery. When he sings “I ain’t got where to go” on the second cut on his 2010 release When I Rise, you really believe the poor man is lost and destitute. Williams’s vocals quiver with pent-up angst, while the emotional level is pushed up another couple of notches by the raw sound of his distorted electric guitar.
Williams is also one of the few bluesmen who manage to marry the acoustic and raw approach to the music from the Deep South with the electrically enhanced approach that hails from Chicago, the so-called blues capital of the North. His singing and instrumental delivery could be described as “Motown meets John Lee Hooker.”
The playing and singing churchman largely puts that down to personal chronology and technological advances.
“What I do is really a mixture of both those worlds, he says. “When I was growing up, it was on the sort of border of the less modern world, through a transition of an older style of living into the modern way of living. We didn’t have a telephone until I was 10. I knew people who didn’t have electricity, and people lived in a one-room shack. We didn’t have running water until I was about 11. Now we have cell phones, and we can talk to each other and see each other from opposite sides of the world. In my childhood I didn’t think that would ever happen. So I absorbed the old style, from the old way of living, and the modern style.”
That gave Williams valuable insight into the evolution of the art form too. “Musically I am informed by both the old and modern styles. I listened to Jimi Hendrix when he was coming up, and the soul and funk generation with people like James Brown and the Parliament-Funkadelic [funk, soul and rock collective], but I also knew about [early blues legends] Lightnin Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I am a kind of fusion of all that. You also have to talk to someone from that time to understand where they and the music are coming from.”
Although Williams is some way past his first flush of youth, he was born long after the earliest bluesmen, like Robert Johnson and Jefferson, were nurturing the music through its infancy. Even so, he says he connects with the organic feel and energies of yesteryear. “In those old Baptist churches, the simple churches with wooden floors and all that, and in the poorer places in the South, people would just sing and use their body to make music. They’d clap their hands and stomp to make the rhythm because that’s all they had” In addition to electric guitar, Williams proffers the elemental colors and textures of the music through a less sophisticated instrument – the diddley bow, which has a square flat body, lock neck and just two strings. “That’s a lost art,” he notes. “It originates from slaves who were brought over from Africa. They just had one string and a stick, and then here they could just take a string and a couple of nails and stretch the string across them, and they’d play by picking on it or sliding across it with a bone or something. Now I guess there’s only me and a few other people who make music on a diddley bow.”
New York City-based multi-instrumentalist Cooper- Moore, who has played here several times, are among this elite group. Williams says there is no substitute for evoking the roots of the art form on the earliest rudimentary forms of blues instrumentation. “It is one of the most soulful feelings you can ever give because those sounds originate from a person’s soul.”
There will certainly be plenty of soul and heart to be had at Williams’s three gigs, and they promise to offer local blues fans a rare chance of getting a glimpse of where it all began.
KM Williams will perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv (January 10), the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem (January 11) and Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv (January 12). For more information: (03) 518-8123 and www.barby.co.il; (02) 679-4040 and www.yellowsubmarine.org.il; and (03) 560-5084 and www.levontin7.com