Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Al Goldberg
In an alternate universe, “American Idol” and its ilk do not exist; no one turns a blind eye to poverty or hunger; and a guitar is the only weapon of choice. All those visions and more came to life during a mesmerizing two-hour set by the incomparable Willie Nile at The Linda, recorded for future broadcast on WAMC-FM.
The Linda has been a perennial stop for Nile, whose performances have been jaw-dropping. With acoustic guitar in hand and bassist Johnny Pisano singing harmonies, Nile set the tone that this was going to be night for a full house to remember with “Singin’ Bell,” the rousing lead track to his acclaimed 2010 release, “The Innocent Ones.” That album’s title track, which Nile called “a prayer for compassion” in his introduction, seemed to channel the spirits of George Harrison and Joe Strummer. In a heartfelt, impromptu moment, he dedicated “Rich and Broken” to the late Whitney Houston, acknowledging her vocal talent as well as her fatal predilection for the trappings of fame.
Last autumn, Nile and Pisano toured the United Kingdom – be sure to check out the superb 2011 “Live: Hard Times in the U.K.” on River House Records) and had the chance to visit the childhood home of John Lennon. The story of that day was a riveting example of string theory, and the duo went into a spirited “My Little Girl,” a song they played in that Liverpool house’s porch, first in a cappella mode, then with instruments in hand, Pisano playing an extraordinarily melodic solo (just one of many virtuoso moments) reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s work on “Please Please Me.” Keeping in the Fab Four spirit, Nile went right into the shimmering “Her Love Falls Like Rain.”
It came as no surprise that Nile is a Buddy Holly fan, and his rendition of “Not Fade Away” raised the roof. Masterfully, he switched gears to offer a chilling critique of terrorists and those who look the other way in “Cell Phones Ringing (in the Pockets of the Dead).” Switching to grand piano, Nile rejoiced in the simple pleasures of “Sunrise” in New York City and prefaced his love of America (“I love the dream of this country!”) with an ode to the rich immigrant stories in “The Crossing,” a song originally intended for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” which will finally appear on his upcoming album. Political consciousness is a motif in Nile’s career; indeed, he told a poignant story about how coverage of famine in Africa in 1979 inspired “Across the River”, a plaintive look at parental endurance in crisis. Looking to his own family, Nile strapped on his guitar and harmonica rack to celebrate the wonderful quirks of his daughters in “Sideways Beautiful.”
Intrepid is a word that Nile embodies, and the unreleased “Holy War” took on the notion of terrorism head on, calling out the cowardice of any mind that would succumb to warped fundamentalism: “He don’t need you/ God don’t need you/ Suck on that!” Celebratory also sums up his demeanor. In Nile’s benevolent universe, there is a “House of a Thousand Guitars” where a “Vagabond Moon” shines high above for inspiration to anybody who looks up. It’s a universe in which a philosophy major can roam “Les Champs de Elysses” armed with “One Guitar,” dreaming up dynamic melodies that will reverberate in the souls of young and old.
“I love the magic here in the country we live in; it rings in my heart. Given the right information, perhaps the right decisions will be made,” said Nile prior to beginning an encore set of three songs that showed his unique range. “American Ride,” a Guthriesque song slated as the title cut for the next album, embraced every region of the United States and its music with gusto. Just a few chords of “I Wanna Be Sedated” had the crowd on their feet clapping and chanting the chorus like it was 1976 all over again. Reminiscing about his late friend, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, Nile (with Pisano offering up some sublime bass) closed the night with “On the Road to Calvary,” a song that one could imagine being performed in either an Irish bar or in a cloistered church. In this case, The Linda seemed to a be a blending of the two when the last note rang out and the audience stood as one, some with glasses in hand and many smiling tears all around.
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Late in his two-hour show at WAMC’s The Linda on Saturday, Willie Nile detonated the Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated,’ exhorting, ‘Stand up: This is IT!’ Everybody did, just as everyone sang or clapped whenever he asked. Nile’s great gift as a high-powered, all-purpose rocker is making us believe ‘This is IT!’ — that this show, right now, is it. For all his recent association with Bruce Springsteen — who swaps guest spots on New York area shows, his and Nile’s, and who played his new album for Nile in his car before it was released — Nile echoes the best of Bob Dylan. The angry populism of Nile’s protest songs erupted in ‘Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead’ and the new ‘Holy War’ with its withering refrain ‘God is great, but you’re not!’ Nile sings better than Dylan but he evokes the conversational immediacy of Dylan’s early folk singing. Nile’s off-center love songs refracted romance and familial love through a cracked Dylan-like prism. ‘Sideways Beautiful’ was for his daughters, who he seems to find most appealing when they’re most disheveled. ‘Vagabond Moon,’ an early 1980s love song, expressed devoted-but-hedged love and the atmosphere of New York City.”
WILLIE NILE SET LIST
The Innocent Ones
Rich and Broken (dedicated to Whitney Houston)
My Little Girl
Her Love Falls Like Rain
Not Fade Away” (Buddy Holly)
Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets of the Dead)
Across the River
House of a Thousand Guitars
Les Champs de Elysses
I Wanna Be Sedated (the Ramones)
On the Road to Calvary (dedicated to Jeff Buckley)