LIVE: Willie Nile @ The Linda, 5/16/15
Review by Fred Rudofsky
His songs have a deep sense of history and fervent hope for the future, but something else also is for certain: Willie Nile inhabits the world of live performance like no other. He’s dialed into the now, as his welcome return to The Linda showed on a recent Saturday night.
Old fans, some from as far away as Toronto, and the newly converted got the full depth of Nile’s canon of work, which dates back some 30-plus years. Joined his talented band of brothers – bassist Johnny Pisano, drummer Alex Alexander and guitarist Matt Hogan – Nile brought energy and passion, as well as candid stories and about many of the songs, throughout a two-hour set.
“Hear You Breathe,” from his 2010 masterwork The Innocent Ones, blended romance and a propulsive rhythm, a fine showcase for Nile and Pisano’s harmonies. The Penny Lane-like images of “Live on Bleecker Street,” punctuated by Nile’s left leg kicks, kept the mood uptempo. “You make me feel like I’m at home!” shouted Nile to the appreciative audience before dedicating an anthemic “Innocent Ones” to the people of earthquake-stricken Nepal. “Heaven Help the Lonely” from 1991’s Places I’ve Never Been got a good number in the crowd up and dancing, with Hogan channeling a blend of Richard Lloyd and The Edge in a series of chiming, melodic solos on his black Telecaster. Setting aside his Stratocaster for a weathered acoustic, Nile sent out his delicate ode to love, “She’s Got My Heart,” to his three granddaughters.
Co-written recently with Jefferson Grizzard, the night’s well-received opening act, “When Levon Sings” paid a heartfelt tribute to the legendary drummer of The Band, imagining him “keeping time with the Man upstairs” and his recorded legacy bringing sunshine to the lives of all who hear his voice. (Oddly, Grizzard did not join Nile and company on stage). “Give Me Tomorrow,” a protest song for justice and respect, had the audience clapping and singing along, prompting smiles by all in Nile’s band.
After making his way to the keyboard, Nile introduced “Lost,” the centerpiece to his recent piano-based album, If I Was a River, with an extended story about working on his second album in December 1980 at the Record Plant in a studio adjacent to the one in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono were wrapping up their final recordings together. (Though he never got to meet his idol, Nile recalled how he did leave him a bag of guitar strings the night before Lennon was shot. Thirty-four years later, Nile recorded his album featuring the same piano Lennon had used on his own solo recordings). “I Can’t Do Crazy Anymore,” also from If I Was a River, featured evocative lyrics about trying to put to rest the passions and distractions of youth. Nile stayed at the keyboard and called back his band for a rousing “Love Is a Train,” then strapped on his acoustic for “American Ride,” an epic song about “the good, the bad and the in-between” with impeccable train track fills by Alexander and a sing-along chorus that summoned the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
“Golden Down,” drolly called “an old song” by Nile, was a twin electric guitar delight reminiscent of the Clash in their prime. “House of a Thousand Guitars,” a highlight of several of Nile’s recent shows at The Linda, took on a deeper meaning with an extemporized lyric (“B.B. King’s gonna kick your ass!”) and a moving shout-out at the end to the recently departed King of the Blues. Lou Reed also got his due in a raucous take on “Rock ‘n’ Roll” -Hogan’s soloing was astounding and earned a standing ovation. Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” roared like an obituary page on double espresso, with the crowd singing the chorus in synch with Nile and Pisano. “I believe in you and me! I believe that music can change the world!” proclaimed Nile before a sanguine rendition of “One Guitar” (with The Linda’s ebullient emcee, Dona Frank-Federico on backing vocals) that kept everybody on their feet.
Sensing the crowd would love to hear one more, Frank-Federico coaxed the band back up for an encore, and what an encore it was. Originally inspired by his late friend Jeff Buckley, Nile’s “On the Road to Cavalry” was re-dedicated for the evening to B.B. King. Nile spoke wistfully about how for a number of years he would often play Albany within a day or two of King’s concerts at the Palace Theatre. Given its images of faith, yearning harmonies, Alexander’s rolling grooves and Hogan’s free-flowing solos, the song was a wonderful tribute to King.
Look for a broadcast of this concert on WAMC-FM this summer.
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Big, anthemic blasts opened: ‘Hear You Breathe,’ ‘The Innocent Ones’ and ‘Heaven Help the Lonely,’ and he closed with Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane,’ Jim Carroll’s ‘People Who Died’ and his own mission statement on the joyous power of ‘One Guitar.’ In between came softer piano songs from a new album, but mostly he steered his band fast and hard; tight, crisp and right at the speed limit. Boasting the best hair in rock ’n’ roll, lean and compact, he jumped up and down, he slammed his guitar strings or teased melody from the piano and he sang great, with the same sort of bone-deep conviction as Bruce Springsteen, Alejandro Escovedo or Hamell on Trial. He was sensational, electric.”
WILLIE NILE SET LIST
Hear You Breathe
Live on Bleecker Street
The Innocent Ones
Heaven Help the Lonely
She’s Got My Heart
When Levon Sings
Give Me Tomorrow
I Can’t Do Crazy Anymore
Love Is a Train
House of a Thousand Guitars
Rock ‘n’ Roll (Velvet Underground)
People Who Died (Jim Carroll)
On the Road to Calvary