Road Rock, Neil Young (Warner Bros.) Studio musicians pride themselves on anonymity. Hal Blaine, the great '60s drummer, played on sessions for the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and many others. Yet solid as he was, you'd be hard pressed to figure out which tracks he did or didn't play on. His job was crucial: in a single session, reading sheet music for the first or second time, he laid down a rhythmic bedding against which the others defined themselves. A crack session ace like Blaine is the canvass to which producers add paint.
But there is a breed of session player that stands apart. These musicians cultivate a recognizable sound, and add nuance to projects that might otherwise sound flat. Jim Keltner, a top studio drummer for the past 30 years, has power, subtlety, and good taste. If his name appears on a recording, it's a good bet you'll want to hear it.
Keltner started out in the L.A. recording scene right as the Beatles were breaking up, and met up with his hero Ringo Starr at the Concert for Bangladesh, where they gleefully double-drummed (a terrifically difficult task). Since then he's drummed for everybody from Bob Dylan to Steely Dan to Ry Cooder; he drives a lot of the better rock albums you own even when he goes unaccredited.
Session players are in the service industry; they have to accommodate every imaginable style to suit every employer taste. Keltner does this while constantly refining his cunning, discrete sound. This past year he colored two such distinct sessions you'd never guess the same player was behind them both: Lucinda Williams's Essence, and Neil Young's Road Rock. (A partial list of the sides Keltner's played on in the past season include Jon Brion's Meaningless, Peter Case's Blue Guitar, The Charlatans UK's Wonderland, Cracker's Garage d'Or, Dion's Born to Be With You/Streetheart, Neil Finn's One Nil, and Rufus Wainwright's Poses.)
To begin with, Keltner's "time" is both fluid and firm. "Time" is that elusive steadiness all drummers seek, so elusive that many producers simply hook up a "click track" to a drummer's headphones and make them play along to a digital metronome. It's a big part of what makes today's slick contemporary sounds so stiff. "We never used a click track in the old days," Ringo Starr once said. "We did okay." Through the infinitely subtle way he controls the beat by pushing and pulling against it, Keltner can make a click track sound like a human pulse: steady, yet flexible. (The other great click track wizard is Rolling Stone Charlie Watts, with whom Keltner collaborated on an ambitious but ultimately out-of-reach project last year.)
Keltner's drumming is poetic; however simple, his patterns always send off more than one message at a time. On Williams's "Get Right With God," his patterns rise above the typical bass, snare, and hi-hat clich┐s; he gives you something to listen to beyond mere rhythm, without drawing undo attention to himself. This track would challenge any drummer to give the static rhythm a sense of shape, movement, and purpose. Keltner creates curves in the sound, gives the others a sense of where to land, and which accents can work as pivots. Half of the pleasure in listening to him lies in the sheer confidence he inspires from the others, including Williams's raspy vocal. The other half lies in the ongoing sense of anticipation he creates, the aura of the unexpected that hovers in the air even when nothing special is happening.
A show-off drummer would have enough trouble toning down for a Lucinda Williams session┐her songwriting calls for interior moods. But to hear the same Keltner bash his way through a thrilling set behind Neil Young makes you marvel at how much his ears embrace. Even when he starts soloing behind Neil Young's ravenous guitar in "Cowgirl in the Sand," a song you thought you were familiar with, he traces an intangible line between utter control and utter abandon. The challenge here is completely different: to make yet another live Neil Young effort sound fresh through songs that have become second nature. Keltner's choices here are uncanny: he's not pushing the music forward so much as pulling it more into itself, like the whirlpool at the center of a vortex. He can lope along with the song's lopsided verve, awash in its dismay, and then build to refrain-ending flourishes that have no right to fit into the small spaces he squeezes them in. As barbed and chaotic as Young's guitar playing is, you can get just as many thrills from Keltner's tidal control and release.
When Neil Young appeared on the Tribute to Heroes telethon on September 21st, he sang John Lennon's "Imagine" with a fearsome tenderness. That was Jim Keltner on drums, supporting the song's vast ambition with a decisive rhythmic spine, the same way he did on the original session. When singers want deeply felt definition, contour, and color from a stickman, they know who to call.