Willie Nile – Still a Great Performer in Daylight

by delarue

“How’re the levels? How’s my guitar? Is it wallpaper folk music, or let’s-blow-up-this-building?” Willie Nile asked the crowd at J&R’s downtown Friday. On one level, it was weird seeing Willie Nile play in broad daylight. On the other hand, Nile is the rare rock musician who plays well before sunset: his recently reissued Live in Central Park album is legendary. It’s been thirty years since Nile debuted on Columbia Records as the latest in a long line of New Dylans, at least fifteen since his last misadventure with a major label; not surprisingly, his independence is what gained him a worldwide following (he’s off on European tour again next week after a VH1 live appearance Monday morning). This time out it was just a trio, Nile playing acoustic (but still wanting to blow up the building with it) plus Alex Alexander on drums and Johnny Pisano on bass.

Rock bass solos are usually a recipe for disaster, but Pisano got all the solos this time and still left the crowd wanting more: elegant, thoughtful rises and falls, torrents of eight-note punches and a few bluesy bends, basically guitar voicings simply moved a couple of octaves lower. And he sang harmonies while playing a lot of them. Yet he didn’t overshadow the frontguy, who’s become the undisputed champ of the killer chorus, and Nile launched into one after the other. The opening track, Singin’ Bell (from Nile’s new album The Innocent Ones) sounded like a Woody Guthrie song done as a big rock anthem. The title track, a dedication to children endangered and killed by violence around the world, moved from a verse that reminded of Bob Dylan’s Hurricane – thanks to the soaring bass – to a singalong as the chorus kicked in. As a chronicle of a strung-out talent wasting her life away, Rich and Broken could have just as easily been sarcastic and vicious, but it wasn’t: it could have been an Amy Winehouse requiem. And while Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead is actually very sarcastic, Nile firing off one surreal, sometimes twisted image after another, he left no doubt at the end that the song was in memory of the victims of the Madrid train bombings, right down to the false ending and explosive chord-chopping outro.

The slow ballad On the Road to Calvary, dedicated to his friend Jeff who’d perished when the twin towers were demolished, was even more poignant than usual (it’s usually a vehicle for a long guitar solo). But as deeply aware as Nile’s music is, he’s an old pro at working a crowd, deciding in a split second that he wanted to do Champs Elysees, a proto-Ramones hit whose narrator isn’t so starstruck by the sights of Paris that he doesn’t notice the pretty girls before everything else. “It’s simple, just follow me,” he grinned at Alexander, whose swinging backbeat brushwork was absolutely perfect for the space they were playing.

Since J&R’s is a stone’s throw from the Occupy site/s, Nile took care to offer his solidarity with them. “I believe in the dream of America. I think it’s all about information. If we all had the same information, we’d make the same decisions. No matter what your beliefs, if a seven-year-old on a bike gets hit by a car, we all come out of our houses to help,” Nile explained before running through One Guitar, a surprisingly New Order-ish anthem that USA Today recently picked as their #1 song of the week. Nile closed with a request, House of 1000 Guitars, the title track from his previous album, which covers the same turf that Leonard Cohen did with Tower of Song except that this isn’t the kind of place you’d hear Hank Williams coughing all night long – but you might hear a holler or two, alongside Hendrix and the rest of Nile’s guitar pantheon.

Yet more evidence of how the scales have tilted in favor of independent musicians: this was Black Friday. There aren’t many record stores left in New York, so J&R’s pretty much has their pick of who they want for in-store shows like this one. Maybe they could have had Rihanna, or Lady Gag. But they got Willie Nile instead. That pretty much says it all.