Review and photographs by Richard Brody
Additional photographs by Bryan Lasky
The day-long musical fireworks on Lark Street needed a grand finale, and who better than Willie Nile and his superb band to supply that at LarkFest’s Madison Avenue stage? The crowd was pumped from the opening salvo: “This Is Our Time,” with lyrics, “Can you feel the power, can you feel the drive, can you feel the feeling that it’s good to be alive?” Support came steady from the tight rhythm section of Johnny Pisano on bass and Alex Alexander on drums and Matt Hogan’s slamming lead guitar; band and crowd became one, and the party kicked into an even higher gear.
The set featured a number of songs from Nile’s recent album, American Ride, including “Life On Bleecker Street” about his adopted NYC home and specifically the street on which his career began some 40 years ago. Willie being Willie, this was not a nostalgic trip back home, but rather a humorous and somewhat cynical view of hipsters, stars, wannabees and tourists who all see Bleecker Street as the destination.
Unfortunately, the title track from the album did not hold up as well. Willie picked up his acoustic, and the band turned down the musical frenzy and volume, creating a more folk-like atmosphere. The song is lyrically dense, capturing many of the regional threads that make up the historic, musical and physical fabric of our country. The slower tempo works on the recording, as it allows the listener to take in the song’s complex portrait of our country, but it just didn’t work well at Larkfest. I’d like to hear it at The Linda.
The set also included covers that paid tribute to influences and friends who had passed, beginning with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” that rocked hard with guitars raised and the familiar verses spit out in a fast, punky style, setting the table for the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” that had the band twirling and bouncing with guitars pointed to the heavens. But the crowning cover was a great version of the late hoopster, poet and rocker Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” featuring stunning guitar work by Mr. Hogan and non-stop movement by everyone on the stage, and for that matter, the entire south end of Lark Street.
“Holy War” was the song that best combined the rock ‘n’ roll fury of the band and Willie’s interest in social justice. It’s a straight ahead critique of religious fundamentalists who justify killing as God’s will. The short, pointed chorus lyric of “God’s holy, you’re not” was spit out with indignation and just a touch of gotcha.
Willie has been one of our under-appreciated, fine songwriters and great performers for a long time. Matt Hogan, Johnny Pisano, and Alex Alexander do a great job of providing the firepower that Willie’s songs need. If you get a chance to see them, you will not be disappointed.
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