Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Willie Nile loves Albany, and Albany loves Willie Nile. When you hear the radio broadcast that was taped at The Linda recently on a Saturday night, it will be obvious that there is a growing mutual admiration society here in Nippertown.
In previous visits to the WAMC-FM performing arts studio, Nile had played with one or two other musicians, but as he pointed out after an evocative solo piano opener (“Streets of New York”), “This is the first time I’ve had my full band here!” In walked Johnny Pisano (bass), Alex Alexander (drums) and Matt Hogan (lead guitar). Nile grabbed his weathered Strat, stomped his boots and the band played a rollicking “This Is Our Time” from American Ride, one of the best albums of 2013 according to music critics, including yours truly. Another recent song, “Life on Bleecker Street,” featured a killer opening bass riff by Pisano and an abundance of images of a day in the famed New York neighborhood.
If Amnesty International ever needs an official anthem for its human rights campaign, its directors should seek out Nile’s “The Innocent Ones,” a song with the conscience of Bob Marley and Joe Strummer in their prime that rocks harder than Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, but with fewer musicians. Hogan’s guitar work on “Heaven Help the Lonely” was astoundingly melodic and powerful, and rightfully prompted a standing ovation (the first of several throughout the evening). “It feels like home!” Nile exclaimed, offering a quick flashback to when he’d played the venue a few years ago on crutches, before counting off “Grenade,” an explosive gem off 1981’s Golden Down.
“This song is dedicated to my children and your children – it’s a song of hope,” said Nile who quickly had the crowd clapping along to “Give Me Tomorrow.” Moving to the piano, he changed the pace with “Sunrise in New York City,” a song as catchy as the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” The genius of band is often revealed in how each musician joins in, as was the case with “Love Is a Train”. Nile played solo piano for two verses, then Alexander entered the mix with a towel-dampened bass drum; Pisano picked out a nimble melody line, and Hogan brought it all to a fever pitch with some extended, echo-laden Mike Campbell-meets-The Edge soloing. Nile took it all back to a brief solo piano interlude, and then all rallied together for a galloping denouement that had the crowd up on their feet shouting in awe.
If Johnny Cash were alive, there is no doubt he would have “American Ride” on his iPod. Nile’s epic road song came with a moving preface: “The dream that lives in this country still burns in my heart. I still believe in that dream!” He strummed his acoustic guitar like a 21st century Woody Guthrie on the first few verses, and then his band was with him, harmonizing on the chorus like they were around a campfire.
“You all know Lou Reed?” cracked Nile before paying tribute with a spot-on rendition of “Sweet Jane,” replete with Hogan somehow channeling Sterling Morrison and Robert Quine. “House of a Thousand Guitars,” with its Buddy Holly-like melody and thunderous beat by Alexander, was irresistible, referencing a slew of the greatest six-stringers (e.g. “John Lee Hooker’s going to kick your ass/ In the House of a Thousand Guitars!”). Name-checking continued in Jim Carroll’s ode to the reckless and cruelly fallen, “People Who Died.” The crowd was back up and clapping along for a relentless “One Guitar,” and the ovation lasted nearly two minutes.
Clearly moved by the response, Nile and his band chose “Little Light,” a song whose chorus rings very true in the murky days of 2014. Nile and Pisano harmonized like the Everly Brothers and had the first few rows singing along and waving cell phones. Exhausted but exuberant, the band closed out with “A Hard Day’s Night” and took a collective “Ed Sullivan Show”-like bow at the end.
The Jefferson Grizzard Band, a five-piece, opened with nine songs that showed their bandleader’s undeniable debt – vocally and sometimes in the choruses – to Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. Some of the lyrics seemed muffled or indecipherable, but the final two songs, especially the rootsy “In the Fog,” suggested that Grizzard may be developing his own voice soon.
WILLIE NILE SET LIST
Streets of New York
This Is Our Time
Life on Bleecker Street
The Innocent Ones
Heaven Help the Lonely
Give Me Tomorrow
Sunrise in New York City
Love Is a Train
Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground)
House of a Thousand Guitars
People Who Died (Jim Carroll)
A Hard Day’s Night (the Beatles)
THE JEFFERSON GRIZZARD BAND SET LIST
Long Time Coming
Rough Time in Paris
Outlaw Blues (Bob Dylan)
In the Fog
Can I Get Out?