It's not hard to spot Brian Williams. It's hard to keep up with Williams, but not hard to find him at joint du jour, his arms around his big doghouse bass, with that big smile on his dial. Williams is everywhere, he's the bass man of the Rochester scene, the go-to guy, the top cat on the bottom end.
Whether it's bluegrass, rockabilly, Gypsy jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, spoken word, or children's songs, Williams masterfully covers it all. He keeps busy. He gets around. It's in his blood.
Long before it was the man and his bass, it was the boy and his radio soaking up early rock 'n' roll.
"I was a child of the 50's," Williams says. "And as such, I had the benefit and joy of listening to Alan Freed and Murray The K on local New York radio station WINS. I grew up in Long Island but we had all the New York radio stations, which were the best at that time — especially in the early days of rock 'n' roll. In the evenings, the DJ would take dedications and requests. We would call in and we'd hear ours on the radio and be so thrilled. So I grew up on early rock 'n' roll ringing in my ears."
Music was encouraged in the Williams household. Williams' mother was an opera fanatic. But by the time he picked up the guitar in his early teens, Williams had virtually no formal music training except for trumpet lessons in the fifth grade.
"I haven't had a music lesson since," he says with a laugh. "Once I started strumming the guitar, it was all by ear. My ear training has served me very well."
While attending RIT in the early-1970's, Williams started cutting his teeth on guitar and banjo with other aspiring musicians. They would play in the hall during their lunch break. This culminated in a serendipitous invitation to play a tent party in Mendon, New York. The new owner of the Cottage Hotel, a live music venue in Mendon, happened to be there.
"He was so excited to hear this band — which was hardly a band at the time," Williams says. "And he said, 'You've got a job three nights a week as long as you want it.' And we jumped at the chance." The Swamp Root String Band was born and rapidly garnered a rabid audience. According to Williams, the time was right.
"It was 1972," he says, "and the folk music revival was happening and nobody was playing our kind of music around Rochester at the time. The drinking age was 18, and DWI wasn't strictly enforced at all, and a 20 minute drive from Rochester wasn't a big deal. We had a tremendous following for two years."
With its three-night anchor gig in place, The Swamp Root String Band began to venture out during the summer months to areas around the Appalachian Mountains and beyond to play bluegrass conventions and festivals. Then fate walked in the door carrying a dobro.
"My musical tastes changed dramatically when a young high school drop-out came to the Cottage Hotel and wanted to sit in between our breaks," Williams says. "We were resistant at first, but gave him a chance. And about ten seconds into his first tune we knew he had something special." It was bluesman John Mooney.
After The Swamp Root String Band dissolved, Williams picked up the bass and hitched his wagon to Mooney's star. The duo played together all over the U.S. east of the Mississippi. It was a strictly acoustic affair with a clarinet, harmonica, and keyboard added in at different intervals. The John Mooney Blues Band recorded two albums and tore up the road for roughly 10 years, ending when Mooney split for New Orleans.
In 1985, Williams was bombing around town with Miss Kate and her Hep Cats when drummer Jim Simmonds called him to form the rockabilly trio Bobby Henrie and the Goners. This was the perfect outfit for Williams' taste and skill.
"Bob had rock 'n' roll and rockabilly skills," he says. "But also had a deep background in old time string band music and bluegrass." The Goners hit the ground with a mighty gallop, playing approximately 80 shows its first year, moving on to 100 annually. The trio has been non-stop for 30 years except for a year-long sabbatical when Henrie got his bachelor's degree in jazz guitar and jazz composition at SUNY Geneseo. It was then that Williams' phone started ringing. He hadn't considered side work.
"It wasn't something that I was motivated to do," he says. "I just started getting calls."
The first call came in 2000 from Roy Berns and Ed Marris to play French musette waltzes, café jazz, and the music of Django Reinhardt in a group to be called Lumière. Williams wasn't sure he was qualified or if Berns and Marris even had the right number.
"My immediate response was, 'Are you sure you've got the right guy?"' he says. "They said, 'Yes we know what you do. We want you to do it with us.'"
Lumière built a cult following in no time with weekly appearances, weddings, parties, and corporate events. A few shift changes and the band morphed into Manouche à Trois. And with the addition of Eric and Harry Aceto and Bobby Henrie in 2010, the band turned into The Djangoners.
When Williams isn't out gigging, he's still a gadabout, a man about town. You know it's a good show if you see Williams' face in the place.
"I'm very visible on the Rochester music scene," he says. "I attend a lot of music events because I love to support my fellow musicians." These are the same musicians who seek Williams' studio and live input. Artists like Maria Gillard and Scott Regan who recently plugged Williams into a new project they're recording. Artists like the multi-instrumental Mike Kornrich and Piedmont-style Bluesman Fred Vine both keep Williams busy with gigs at schools and old folks homes. Williams is one of the few musicians you'll see play "Itsy bitsy Spider" and "Race With The Devil" in the course of the same day.
He's toured off and on with Albany rockabilly sensations The Lustre Kings, plays jazz standards with The Charlie Mitchell Group, non-jazz standards with The Flexitarians, and just about anything you throw at him.
"My calendar in the course of any week currently includes playing with six or seven different outfits," he says.
There's a little bit of Brian Williams in a lot of different bands.
"The reason I get called for the gig is because they want a little bit of Brian Williams," he says. "But by the same token, since I don't read music and haven't had formal lessons and I'm ear-trained, immediately I listen to what's going on and figure out how to compliment that. "And that may require in some cases, playing in a style I'm completely unfamiliar with and that lets me explore around different territory in order to make a sensible musical compliment to the group."
One might think Williams a musical bachelor too busy having fun to commit, or better yet a bass playing nomad, a loner, a Gypsy. Nope.
"Actually that's hardly the case," Williams says. "I feel a strong commitment, first and foremost to my long standing band Bobby Henrie and the Goners, and also to The Djangoners. But I make every effort possible to be available to the other ensembles I play with."
Though the man could stand to brag a little, he lets his fingers do the talking. "My playing speaks for itself," he says with a smile and a wink. "It's all good fun."