Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs courtesy of The Linda/Andrzej “Andre” Pilarczyk
As Yogi Berra would say, it felt like deja vu all over again – only with a batch of new songs added – when perennial favorite Willie Nile mesmerized The Linda in Albany like few on the scene can. Don’t believe me? Wait till you hear the upcoming broadcast of this show on WAMC-FM…
American Ride, due out later this month, is the latest in a string of superb albums from the New York-based guitarist/pianist. A hearty roar of hello greeted Nile, bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Alex Alexander. Strapping on an acoustic guitar, Nile mentioned recent stops in Europe and Nashville, and asked the crowd, “Are you ready?!” The lead track to the new album, “This Is Our Time,” provided an answer his question, a carpe diem rocker with wordless harmonies. “Life on Bleecker Street,” also a new song, offered vignettes of Nile’s neighborhood to a propulsive beat by Alexander.
“The Innocent Ones,” a song of protest which Nile dedicated the children “going hungry tonight,” gave voice to the voiceless, punctuated by a melodic solo by Pisano and the crowd on its feet singing along to the chorus. “Things keep coming back to innocence for me,” remarked Nile who dedicated “She’s Got My Heart” to a pair of ardent fans who had driven more than four hours from Ontario. “Far Green Hills,” a song co-written with Frankie Lee on House of a 1000 Guitars, brought to mind Bobby Fuller Four meets the Byrds, especially given Pisano’s use of an octave pedal that lent a 12-string guitar vibe to his solos.
What Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” meant to the Cold War era, Nile’s “Holy War” could mean in critiquing the 21st century’s increasingly faith-based acts of violence.
Introducing the song, which he had honed on the road for the past year before recording it, Nile said it was written in reaction to the “cowardice bullshit” of terrorism. “Here’s to a better world!” he exclaimed before launching into his song of outrage (the “God is great/ You are not!” chorus was impeccably succinct kiss-off to demagogues and their agents of terror).
Shifting to the studio’s grand piano, Nile had the crowd clapping and singing along to “Sunrise in New York City.” Friends crop up continually in Nile’s shows, and he took the time to honor Rob Morsberger, a remarkable musician/arranger and father of three who was in the final stages of brain cancer (and died a few days after Nile’s Albany concert). Nile praised his friend’s courage and grace, and told the audience how he had contacted Randy Newman a few months ago to check out Morsberger’s “Everybody Wants to Be Loved,” a live solo performance clip that had been generating a growing buzz on YouTube. Nile dedicated “The Crossing,” originally inspired by the Irish immigrants of the 19th century (“but it could be about any journey”) to Morsberger, who had done the song’s studio string arrangements. Nile’s performance was astounding, and not a dry eye was left in The Linda.
Moving back to guitar and exclaiming, “I still believe in the dream – here’s to our great country!” Nile and company played a trio of tunes that would have left Bruce Springsteen shaking his head in awe: “American Ride,” “Run” and “House of a 1000 Guitars.” The latter song, which had all singing along from the first refrain, imagined a pantheon of blues and rock and roll guitarists in concert that real music fans should know; otherwise, Nile added in a quick aside, “Levon Helm is gonna kick your ass!”
Introduced as “a song about the Existential Twist,” Nile dug back 30 years for “Les Camps Elysses.” Pisano’s bass playing and Alexander’s drumming were as wild as the crowd that had chased Nile, a philosophy major, through those Parisian streets and inspired the song. Adjusting the vocal monitor he had accidentally kicked over in the moment, Nile spoke of his late friend, singer extraordinaire Jeff Buckley, and what it was like to see him play legendary gigs at Cafe Sin-E in New York City in the early 1990s. Dedicated to Buckley’s memory, “The Road to Cavalry” played like a New Orleans funeral procession, dirge-like in the beginning and jubilant in the end. “One Guitar” followed, bringing the crowd to their feet, filling the studio with unrestrained rock and roll and the hope that six strings played by the young at heart will bring peace and love to a troubled world.
Given a two-minute standing ovation, Nile and his band had no choice but to return for two more, an energetic piano-driven “Love Is a Train” and “Not Fade Away”; the latter was prefaced by Nile’s story of working as an ambassador for the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation and meeting Holly’s widow, Maria Elena. The trio played this classic Texas rocker’s ode to romance with aplomb, and Alexander got to indulge in some fun mayhem with a drum solo to close out the evening. The band bowed, the crowd roared, autographs and photos followed for well over an hour, and the night was complete.
WILLIE NILE SET LIST
This Is Our Time
Life on Bleecker Street
The Innocent Ones
She’s Got My Heart
Far Green Hills
Sunrise in New York City
House of 1000 Guitars
Les Champs Elysees
On the Road to Cavalry
Love Is a Train
Not Fade Away