One of the first things I always notice about great musicians is their lack of self-importance. It’s something that great surviving players just discard over the years, replacing it with the things that are way more important than the delusional trappings of stardom. Willie Nile is a prime example of a guy who has become one of the top “gentleman troubadours” out there today. Soft spoken and humble, its hard to fathom the life he’s lead and the people he’s met during his tumultuous career.
To know what got Willie Nile here, you need to know where he came from. Born into a New York musical family where his grandfather was known for playing piano for the likes of Eddie Cantor, Nile weaned himself on Presley, The Everly’s, Buddy holly and many other American pioneers, becoming proficient on piano before heading to the city, where during the ‘70s he became very well known in the folkie circuits. Things went fast from there, seeing Nile becoming the center of bidding wars and the darling of the critic’s countrywide.
If that wasn’t enough, the excitement surrounding his self-titled debut 1980 album, Willie Nile, prompted Pete Townshend to summon Nile for the Who’s summer tour. Nile was soon on the road with The Who, and only a few months after Willie’s first experience playing with a band. Add the fact that in 2003 he shared the stage with with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, including the two final historic Shea Stadium shows, and it looked as if things couldn’t be more on track.
But the critical breakthrough came with the 2006 album, Streets Of New York, that included the tune “Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead,” an eerie song about the events of the train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people. The first time I saw this performed was probably in 2007 in Woodstock, NY, when Willie was playing with Levon Helm at the Playhouse and he just shut down the whole venue, the song was so emotional you could here a pin drop in there.
Willie showcased many of his classics for The Stone Pony tonight including the crowd sing-along of “She’s So Cold,” “Substitute,” and “Hard Times In America” that featured the great Joe Grushecky (headlining the night in celebration of his new record East Carson St.) on lead guitar.
He also laid out some classic Ramones tunes along the way and music from the latest disc, entitled House Of A Thousand Guitars, a veritable delight filled with rough and tumble barroom anthems and the war cry of a blue-collar rock and roll rebellion. Nile hits hard here, snarling with hints of The Clash, Springsteen and even the Pogues, with credible influences that flow freely across this disc. Dirty, fat guitars meld well with machine gun drums and earthquake bass all centered on spitfire vocals coiled and ready to pounce.
Songs like “Run” hint at inspirations of Knopfler, snapping snare, rumbling tom-toms and melodic, pop craftiness blend sidewinder Strat riffs with chimey, fuel injected Tom Petty chords. Rhythms pound metronome straight here, hitting muscle car cruising speeds, tambourines and bouncing bass that usher “Run” into Americana overdrive.
“Her Love Falls Like Rain” has beautiful shadows of The Beatles, especially Lennon’s dark side. Background vocals fall melodically in rows, and repeats, acoustic guitars chop in shimmering slashes and accompanying hand claps, laid back drums and bass all underneath smooth vocals and rusty sharp lead lines.
“When The Last Light Goes Out On Broadway” breathes analog pianos under organ. Vocals sit above the band, plaintive and full as Nile broad strokes the emotion here. Often compared to Dylan vocally, Nile proves those writers wrong, sounding like no other here as he squeezes the soul out of each rough and raspy note with complete abandon. You can literally feel him singing here.
“Magdelena” is a pure rock and roll roller coaster. Remnants of Van Morrison, Weezer, The Monkees and The Romantics scream loud here in conjunction with A-list production, feed-backed guitars groaning in the background as half time hits turned to double time drum attack, accentuating a killer chorus.
There are several others that we don’t have room for here but the Celtic sounds of “Touch Me” and the Warren Zevon vibe of “The Midnight Rose,” and of course the ever-popular disc anthem, “House Of A Thousand Guitars,” were standouts as well.
Willie Nile represents true rock spirit from a working mans point of view bringing the listener on a dynamic tour of Americana gunslinger, social commentator and good time rock and roll stomper. After all these years he’s still holding his own alongside the Goliaths of our time and I can’t wait to see what kind of musical slingshot he levels the playing field with next.