Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Dave Keller isn't very well-known by the average blues fan, but his fellow musicians sure know who he is. Keller has learned from the best, blues and R&B greats like Mighty Sam McClain and Fontella Bass who have taken the young singer under their wings and taught him the subtleties of the music. When blues guitarist Ronnie Earl wanted a singer for several songs on his 2009 album Living In The Light, he turned to Keller, who delivered knockout performances every time.
We chose Keller as one of the "Six Blues Artists To Watch In 2010" and while Keller may be the oldest artist on that list, we stand by our selection. Based on Play For Love, the third album release from the talented, Vermont-based bluesman, we're quite frankly shocked that Keller hasn't been snapped up by a big-name blues-and-roots label like Blind Pig or Stony Plain instead of releasing material on his own independent Tastee-Tone Records. Play For Love is a stunning collection of blues and soul with emotionally-charged vocals, elegant fretwork, and mature, intelligent lyrics that would certainly appeal to a larger audience.
Dave Keller's Play For Love
Much has been made about Keller's incredible vocals, including more than a few kind words from your humble scribe, but his appearance on Earl's Living In The Light would prepare no listener for the impressive display found on Play For Love. With a nicely-ringing guitar intro, "Here I Am" plays like throwback 1970s soul, Keller's vocals echoing B.B. King in their passionate phrasing, but entirely original in their hearty emotionalism. The song's languid pace accentuates the subtle six-string passages where Keller displays a fine tone, complimented by Ira Friedman's soaring keyboard washes.
If "Here I Am" is a smoldering example of R&B styled heartbreak, "Give It A Rest" is a Southern-influenced, mid-tempo rocker with gospel-tinged keys and blue-eyed soul vocals reminiscent of Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie. As the instrumentation swells to the climax, Keller kicks in with a spirited guitar solo that melds Elvin Bishop's bluesy twang with Duane Allman's Muscle Shoals soul. The title track is another slow-burning, blues-influenced tearjerker with intricate fretwork and drummer Brett Hoffman's nuanced brushwork, Keller's mournful vocals rising in anguish above the instrumentation.
Only Place I'm Going (Is Down)
Keller and band kick it up a notch for the urgent "Only Place I'm Going (Is Down)," an up-tempo rocker that pairs pure-D blues lyrics with an energetic soundtrack comprised of clashing cymbals, rolling keyboard riffs, and driving guitar. While lyrically lamenting the fate of the working class, the deterioration of the protagonist's Snow Belt city, and the loss of love, the song includes one of the best blues lines I've ever heard: "folks say I should get up and move, find somewhere with a better groove."
"To The City" is a gritty, bluesy rocker that displays Keller's best soul-man vocals, brilliant lyrical imagery, and a damn fine pairing of guitar strum and background keyboards. Keeping up the pace, the morality tale "With God on My Side" is a similar up-tempo number but with more of a Southern rock feel, fast-paced vocals, and near-perfectly matched guitar-keyboards dynamic that often times sounds like twin lead guitars. The album-closing "Gabriella" is a fiery blues-rock six-string pyrotechnics display with red-hot fretwork that invokes the memory of Stevie Ray Vaughan while charting new territory with lingering tones, jazzy licks, and an overall potent display of talent.
I Was No Angel
Keller's skilled guitarplay reaches its peak on Play For Love with a pair of songs in the middle of the album. Keller's playing on the blues-rock dirge "I Was No Angel" sounds like Stephen Stills on early-period Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, bringing the same sort of heated complexity to his fretwork as Still did on David Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" from the Déjà Vu album.
Keller's inspired playing raises the claustrophobic atmosphere of the song, his reckless, slashing notes at contrast with Jan Shultz's solid bass lines and Friedman's reverent keyboards, complimented by Hoffman's crash-and-bang percussion. On the country-blues of "The Golden Bird," however, Keller reminds of Delta blues great Son House, his slightly-slurred vocals supported by textured, intricate finger-picking on his National steel guitar.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Dave Keller is, perhaps, the best unsigned bluesman on the scene today. An intelligent and imaginative songwriter with an impressive command of the language, he seldom lapses into the stereotypical pitfalls of blues songwriting. His vocals are top-notch every time, capable of both subtle emotion and raw power. It is Keller's guitarwork that is the most surprising here, though, displaying a diverse range of sound and passion, and while none of the songs on Play For Love could be considered to be dominated by the instrument, its presence is definitely felt.
Backed by a talented band well in tune with his lead, Dave Keller's Play For Love easily matches recent recordings by better-known but similar artists like John Nemeth or Mike Zito in the quality of performance. It's time for some enterprising record label to snatch this guy up and introduce him to the music world at large. I promise you, blues fans, Dave Keller is gonna be huge! (Tastee-Tone Records, released September 15, 2009)
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