Swell Keller: Dave Hits it Big
photography by Laura Carbone
The roots of blues music are in the Deep South, and over time the blues have become synonymous with cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City. So when Vermont’s own Dave Keller was rubbing elbows with some of the current-day blues greats on the music circuit, his Montpelier address sounded a little out of place. But that will no longer be the case, as Keller has recently upped his street cred. in the blues world with back-to-back career coups: an award in February for 2012 Best Self-Produced CD at the International Blues Challenge (IBC), sponsored by The Blues Foundation in Memphis, TN, for his new album Where I’m Coming From, and reaching the number two spot on the only Sirius XM Satellite Radio blues station, B.B. King’s Bluesville.
Riding this wave of career highs, people may forget Keller has been plying his trade all over the Northeast for the past 15-plus years. But as with all good things in life, timing is everything. “I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago. My singing and songwriting have improved so much over the years,” admits Keller.
Keller grew up in Worcester, MA and started playing guitar in his teens. His love for the blues led him into Boston, where he took finger picking lessons on his National steel guitar from acoustic blues master Paul Rishell. After years in the city blues circuit, Keller travelled cross-country to Washington State. Working as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer, Keller helped low income families save money on their heating bills, while in his spare time consuming a steady diet of blues by the great Son House, soul via Ray Charles, and retro gospel to round out the mix.
“I think of myself as a blues guitarist and a soul singer/songwriter,” says Keller. Other influences include O.V. Wright, largely regarded as one of the definitive voices of soul music, soul pioneer Sam Cooke, blues guitarists Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.
In 1993, Keller returned to the East coast and settled in the Green Mountain State. “Montpelier feels like home to me, but culturally I’m still from Massachusetts,” says Keller. It was a shock for him to realize that by this time next year he will have lived in Vermont longer than his native Massachusetts.
Fast forward after years of playing gigs at festivals, bars and clubs to a breakthrough moment. “Playing on Ronnie Earl’s BMA-nominated CD Living in the Light as a singer and co-writer in 2009 really opened the door,” says Keller. He followed it up with Play for Love, an album of original tunes recorded with his own band in September 2009. It was the next release, Where I’m Coming From, a collection of soul songs, that really struck “R&B gold” (Dan Bolles, Seven DaysVT).
The CD has received high praise, as much for the song selection as for Keller’s musicianship. He offers up inspired renditions of songs from deep in the soul archives. Blues 411 said, “Mr. Keller's voice has a depth and soul to it that has to make him one of the most talented unsigned artists around. His guitar playing has the edge and grit to it that fits right in with the sound and landscape. His version of 'Pouring Water On A Drowning Man' recalls an early Van Morrison-meets-Otis Redding.”
The immediate result of the IBC award, which is the equivalent of the American Idol of the blues world on an international level, is some serious name recognition, and a higher comfort level hanging out at the Blues Music Awards (BMA) in Memphis in early May. “Everybody has been very welcoming,” says Keller. With more forward career momentum comes challenges of balancing home and work. Keller has two small kids and a family at home in Vermont, and extended time on the road, up to 120 gigs a year, can be tough. While his summer festival schedule was set before receiving the prestigious award, it can only open up the door for a greater variety of gigs at new venues in the future.
When veteran soul singer Johnny Rawls, winner of BMA Best Soul Album of 2010, tours the Northeast, Keller and his band are Rawls’ go-to backing band. They recently played Club Metronome in Burlington, the last gig on a four stop swing through the state. Keller and Rawls have formed a great friendship of mutual respect, with Rawls saying, “Yours is the only CD I can listen to.” Great props coming from a quintessential Mississippi bluesman. The two had ample time to bond on the trip from Vermont to the BMA’s in Memphis last month, during which time Keller was treated to tales of Rawls’ adventures playing with the late blues great, O.V. Wright.
As for Keller’s self-imposed goals after the recent career triumphs: “Write more songs that people sing along with, write more memorable songs. There is nothing like looking out at an audience that is singing along with my music.” Keller is modest in his acceptance of the recent accolades. “I owe all this to my mentors – Ronnie Earl, Johnny Rawls and Robert Ward, who I had the pleasure of backing up when he visited Vermont in 2000. I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to play with amazing people,” says Keller. Folks in the Northeast can catch Keller’s high energy performances this summer as he plays venues in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. As a bluesman with a whole lotta soul, Keller is fast putting Vermont on the larger blues scene map. In the words of soul legend Mighty Sam McClain, "He's for REAL. Y'all check him out.”