In early February 2012, Vermont soul man Dave Keller found himself far from his physical home — and as close to his spiritual home as he’d ever been. Since the age of 18, Keller, now 46, had idolized the great blues and soul singers of the Deep South. Now he was in Memphis at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, ready to lay down tracks for his fifth record, Soul Changes. For a white guy who grew up in the suburbs of Boston, it seemed a little more than unreal.
“I thought, I can’t believe I’m here,” says Keller of standing in the same vocal booth where Al Green recorded “Let’s Stay Together.” “Later, people asked me if I was nervous,” he continues. “The answer is ‘no,’ because everybody there made me feel so welcome and so much a part of the universal club of making music.”
Entry into that universal club has given Keller a work of which he can be proud. Recorded in Memphis and Brooklyn, and funded by a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign, Soul Changes radiates a richly textured intensity and the kind of emotional pain, joy and vulnerability that defines soul. Bob Perry, who produced the record, calls it the best of Keller’s career. Fans of the hardworking Montpelier musician will likely find little reason to argue.
The intimacy of Soul Changes gives it its power. For Keller, the pain expressed on the album’s 11 tracks — six originals and five covers — is all too real. In September 2011, his 17-year relationship with his wife collapsed. Two months later, his father died of cancer.
“It’s the heaviest time of my life, and the most personal record I’ve ever made,” Keller says.
Soul Changes also represents a step forward in Keller’s relationship with Perry, who has produced albums for Wu-Tang Clan, the Revelations and Foxy Brown, among others.
“For the last record, we did all covers,” Keller says of his 2011 release, Where I’m Coming From. “That was what [Perry] wanted to do. It wasn’t my idea, even though it did really well.” The album won the Best Self-Produced CD award at the 2012 International Blues Challenge.
“That propelled me forward,” he continues. “But I wanted to do my original stuff.”
In preparation for his new record, Keller made a 20-song demo of originals at Bennett Shapiro’s Lovetown Recording in Middlesex, Vt. Perry liked what he heard and decided to go big.
“I thought that taking it to Memphis with his own songs was the thing that was gonna take it to another place,” Perry says. “I didn’t know if it was gonna be better or it was gonna be worse, but it wouldn’t be the same thing over again.”
Still, Perry took no chances, stacking the deck with some of the heaviest hitters of 1970s soul to back Keller in the studio. The Hodges brothers — Teenie (guitar), Charles (organ) and Leroy (bass) — made up the core of the studio team. As three-fourths of the Hi Rhythm Section, they had played behind soul hits by Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and many more. Bobby Manuel, a session player during Stax Records’ glory years, added what Keller calls the “money licks” on guitar. Gintas Janusonis, from Brooklyn’s the Revelations, was on drums.
“Basically, Bob Perry believes that it’s not that hard to make a great record,” says Keller before revealing the producer’s formula: great musicians and great songs. Armed with both, he describes a collaborative process in the studio.
“I would stand in the middle [of the studio] and play and sing the song, and all these people I idolize would listen,” he explains, adding that the players would then pepper him with questions about tempo, arrangements and accents — the subtle nuances that make a good song great. “We’d go through it two or three times ’til we got it pretty reasonably tight,” he continues. “Then I’d go in the vocal booth and we’d lay it down.”
Keller’s Memphis experience also included cowriting “17 Years” with Darryl Carter, who penned Bobby Womack’s soul classics “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “More Than I Can Stand.” When Carter arrived at the studio, Keller admitted that he hadn’t sketched out any ideas beforehand. Carter asked what was going on in his life, and Keller explained about his marriage.
“[Carter] said, ‘Seventeen years. Let’s start with that. That’s a good title,’” says Keller. “And he started with that line: ‘I remember what you said when we first met / How much love can one girl get? / That was 17 years ago, baby…’ And we just sort of started filling in lines after that.”
Laid over a background of moaning horns and rendered in Keller’s emotional tenor, the lyrics are among the album’s most affecting. Perry is quick to point out that Keller’s emotional investment in his music is a critical strength.
“It’s not about technical virtuosity,” Perry says. “It’s about passion. There might be guys who are technically better singers, or technically better guitar players, but if they don’t have that passion, Dave’s gonna outshine them every night.”
For now, Keller is planning a series of CD-release parties, including two shows at Sweet Melissa’s in Montpelier this Saturday, November 16. Keller, who’s built a loyal following across the Northeast, plays about 120 shows per year solo and with his band. Night after night, he’ll be doing everything he can to parlay Soul Changes into a bigger audience and, hopefully, a label deal.
But perhaps more important than any of this is what Keller took from his Memphis experience: the idea that human grace makes great music possible.
“The more I get to hang out and play with people who are at that really high level,” Keller says, “the more I realize that the reason they are at that high level is that they are more highly evolved — as human beings.”
As Keller hits the road with Soul Changes, he’ll have the emotional — and, occasionally, the musical — support of another such evolved being, Mississippi blues musician Johnny Rawls. The two struck up a friendship years ago during a jam session at the Vermont Blues Festival. Since then, they have toured together, and Rawls has served as Keller’s mentor. Asked what he thinks of Keller and his new record, the 62-year-old Rawls is characteristically blunt.
“Put it to you like this,” he says. “Some people got it and some people don’t … Dave Keller got it.”
Dave Keller CD Release party, Saturday, November 16, at Sweet Melissas in Montpelier, 8 and 10 p.m. $8.
The original print version of this article was headlined "He’s Got It"