Guess what? There's another Fargo to Twin Cities connection--this time via Austin, Texas. The Keller Brothers, Mike and Corey, grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, moved to Austin, Texas 5 years ago and in January of 2000 moved to the Twin Cities under the guidance of new management. Their new manager, Jon Langseth, convinced them this was the place to be. And based on what's been happening with the group in the short time they have been here they made the right decision.
(top row, l-r): Corey Keller, Matt Farrell|
(bottom row, l-r): Mike Keller, Scott Nelson
Photo copyright © 2000 by Tom Asp. All rights reserved
I caught the band recently at several of their Sunday night gigs at Whiskey Junction. On the first night I had only planned on staying for the first set just to check them out but ended up sticking around for the rest of the night--these guys were just too good to pass up. I'm glad I did too, because during the second set Mike Keller pulled out his slide and proceeded to demonstrate a mastery far beyond his 24 years. This was mean slide, the real deal.
The band is made up of Mike Keller on guitar and vocals, Matt Farrell on piano, organ and vocals, Corey Keller on drums and Scott Nelson on bass. Individually these are four exceptionally talented musicians but when they are playing it's the band as a whole that really impresses you. The interplay between Matt's keyboard and Mike's guitar is indicative of the maturity of their playing. They actually listen to each other, adding support where its needed, never trying to overshadow the other players in the band. But when its time for a solo, whether its guitar, piano, and on occasion, bass and drums, these young players know exactly what they are about as they step forward and dazzle you with their prowess.
The band can cover the blues with soul and skill, from Texas to Chicago with stops along the way in New Orleans, Memphis and Detroit. They also aren't afraid to throw in a little rootsy, alternative country sound (reminiscent of the Jayhawks), and some classic rock 'n roll reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. Matt also laid down a killer version of "Stagger Lee," and Mike threw out some funky, in-the-groove instrumentals. They are a complete package with excellent musicianship, entertaining performers (low-key but intense) and showing good promise as songwriters with some of their original songs striking a positive chord. Mike has done most of the writing so far with Matt beginning to add his own pen to the group sound. Their growing repertoire of original material is another reason to keep your eyes on this hot band.
Brothers Mike (born February 7, 1976) and Corey (born August 22, 1977) grew up in a musical family. Both of their parents were musicians and their father played jazz, soul and rock in local bands around the Fargo area. The brothers started out on piano when they were 4 and 5 years old. Five years later Mike decided he wanted to play the bass and Corey the guitar. Encouraged by their parents they both played in the high school band, drum corps and orchestra. By the time Mike was 12 he had started playing the guitar and when Corey was around 11 he switched to the drums. There were always drums around the house so it was very natural for him.
Mike graduated from high school in 1994 and six months later he had moved to Austin, Texas to totally immerse himself in the flourishing music scene there. A short time later Corey joined him and it wasn't long before their entire family made the move to Texas. Mike said he made the move to Austin to be able to play full time and learn all he could about the blues. Growing up he was influenced by Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and through them learned about the masters of the blues. Some of Mike's influences include Kenny Burrell, Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, Otis Rush and Jimmy Reed and later the slide techniques of Elmore James, Earl Hooker and Robert Nighthawk. These influences are apparent in his guitar playing which is pretty amazing, I especially like his slide guitar technique.
Once Mike and Corey got to Austin they began playing in clubs all around town sitting in wherever they could playing with musicians like Lou Ann Barton and Mike filling in for Derek O'Brien among others. Scott also played bass with Lou Ann Barton and Corey was the durmmer on one of Jonny Lang's early tours. It wasn't long before Mike and Corey decided the time was right to form their own band. On the recommendation of Jake Andrews, the brothers called up a young keyboard player named Matt Farrell who was living in the small town of Belton, Texas. It just took one audition and Matt was a member of the band. When you see and hear Matt play you will understand why. Matt has a thorough command of the keyboards and I had a ball watching him play. Born June 13, 1979 in San Angelo, Texas, Matt is the youngest member of the band.
He started taking piano lessons when he was 4. He said he had a little toy piano and toy record player and when his parents caught him picking out some of the melodies he was hearing they decided it was time to get him started on lessons. According to Matt's father, "from the moment I first heard him playing 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' on (that) toy piano in perfect tune with a record, I knew his talent was going to be something special. I borrowed $2,000 to buy a real one the very next day, and our lives have never been the same. He's yet to crawl down from that piano bench, and I've yet to get that smile of pride off my face."
Matt said his instructor would only teach him classical music but he always had a love for the old rock and roll and boogie-woogie piano. So by listening to records he quickly began to master the techniques of Jerry Lee Lewis (one of his early idols), Professor Longhair, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins and Memphis Slim.
Matt's family moved to Belton when he was 14 and he had just graduated from high school when he got the call from the Keller Brothers. He moved to Austin in 1997 to join the band.
The final member of the band actually came from Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Scott Nelson (born June 30, 1978) had been playing bass since he was 14 around Fergus Falls and the Fargo area, jamming with Mike and Corey's dad on occasion. So when the band started looking for a bass player the Keller brother's dad recommended Scott. Scott didn't know the brothers but based on his association with their dad he made the move to Austin and they had their final member of their band.
It wasn't long before they caught the ear of Clifford Antone and picked up a regular weekly gig at Antone's club playing with and opening for all the major blues bands who came through the area. One of their regular guests whenever he stopped in Austin was hometown friend Jonny Lang, who actually suggested they contact his dad when they were looking for a manager late last year.
A year after forming the band they recorded their fist CD, Live At Antone's (on Elly May Records 1998) which featured 3 originals by Mike Keller and 11 covers. Some familiar cuts include Magic Sam's "All Your Love," Muddy Water's "Blow Wind Blow," and Albert Collins "The Tremble" (through Magic Sam according to Mike). Some lessor know covers include "Trick Bag" from Earl King, "Guitar Cha-Cha," and a couple of songs showcasing Matt's keyboards ("Misery" from Professor Longhair, and "I'm On Fire" from the Jerry Lee Lewis playlist). I happen to love Jerry Lee Lewis so when I first heard Matt playing this song, I thought to myself, "this kid's amazing, he's got that Jerry Lee style nailed." When you see him play you will know exactly what I mean. Matt also has some pretty good vocals to go along with his stellar playing. In fact the vocals of both Mike and Matt add a nice one-two punch to the band's distinct sound.
The first of the three originals on their album by Mike include the instrumental "Memphis" featuring Mike's scintillating guitar work and Matt's excellent keyboard playing. The bass and drums are rock solid and provide a steady, foot-tapping foundation for this song and the rest of the album. The second original, "The Day You Walked," features Mike's confident and catchy vocals underpinned again by the bands excellent instrumentation. The final original is a catchy, atmospheric piece called "Time," that has definite popular hit potential.
After listening to this "Live" CD recorded 2 years ago and seeing the band perform today you realize two things. First, you recognize the raw talent that they had to begin with and second, you see how much they have improved and grown since this recording. Even the songs have evolved into something more then they originally were, as the band has discovered more about their own playing.
In early March the Keller Brothers Band are opening for hometown friend Jonny Lang on his Midwest tour playing 11 dates from March 2-17, 2000. After that you can catch them Sundays at Whiskey Junction and Thursdays at the Minnesota Music Café in March. They will also be at Playmaker's in Fargo, March 24th. Check the Blues On Stage daily calendar page as more dates are added. If you are looking for some fresh new blues action in town, this is one act that just might surprise you.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.