Willie Nile, Still Heading For Another Joint
You could be forgiven if you felt like you were back in time. The tables in front of the stage at Jammin Java outside Washington, D.C. looked the same as when a young Buffalo singer stood onstage at the famed and now defunct Bottom Line in New York. On one of those nights after introducing his band, he presented himself as Hank Williams from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Tonight, some four decades later, Willie Nile claimed his own identity but dedicated one song “If I Ever See The Light” to Williams and sang a line about him in his reverent tribute about the rock and roll cathedral “House of 1000 Guitars.” And if you wanted to verify that the night at the Bottom Line actually happened, you could take a few steps back to the merch table where it was shrunk wrapped for posterity and sale.
Nile may be a little longer in the tooth and now reveres you in tales of his grandchildren. What hasn’t changed is the exuberance and passion brought in Niles four man band and show billed as Willie Nile Presents a Night of Rock and Roll. Nile is still telling stories with cinematic details in songs like “Trouble Down In Diamond Town” and “Children of Paradise.”
Nile wasn’t the first to be compared as the young Dylan when he first came on the scene. (Remember Bruce Springsteen when he was the “next Dylan” ?) On his journey, Nile embraced the New York skyline and streets of Greenwich Village that has been the backdrop of the romanticized writing that has followed.
These days he still leans into songs and falls back with a tip of hat to Dylan in the days when he donned his Fender electric guitar. There’s no doubt where Nike got his phrasing from on the night’s second song “This Is Our Time.” But Nile has come full circle that he now interprets Dylan’s songs on a terrific new tribute album that grew out of an appearance commemorating the songwriter’s seventy-fifth birthday.
But onstage this wasn’t your conventional Dylan tribute. Niles’ ripped through a turbo charged “Blowin In The Wind” like he was fronting a punk band, borrowing from the playbook of Jim Carroll, the late New York singer and author whose “People Who Died” Nile once covered. When he took on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the band’s uber exuberance they played it more like a rousing “Highway 61 Revisited.”
The night’s most special moments occurred when Niles walked stage left and sat at the upright piano. He talked about thinking of his ancestors journey from Ireland. “We all succeeded, “ he said in an affirmation that spoke volumes in a divisive time.
When someone in the audience requested “Back Home,” Nile initially demurred saying “That’s a lot of words.” But he took the challenge about a song he described as partially autobiographical and partially not. “Let’s see how far I get” as he sauntered over to the piano.
Nile was doing fine until he got into the third verse and got stuck. He excused himself to run backstage and grab a notebook with all of the lyrics. When he came back, he paused to show a picture of his family on his cell phone and a story about his father who in a few days turns 100.
His father’s admonition to son to work shaped his values and storytelling. Nile is still passionate about his craft. He said he drove 2400 miles in the last three weeks but still is rewarded by seeing some of the same friendly faces.
Nile bookended the show with its opening tribute to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with its seductive “Honky Tonk Woman”intro. During “Magdalena,” Nile summoned Them and the spirit of “Gloria.”
“Everybody’s lookin’ for what they cannot find” Nile sang with defiance early in the set during “Cell Phone Ringing (In The Pocket of The Dead).” It was sung in a different context but the line stuck through the night. In many ways we’re still coming to see artists like Nile trying to find those transcendent moments that come out of the magic of rock and roll. In that sense the show delivered on its promise. And the following night, Nile was planning an0ther show with a completely different setlist.
At night’s end Nile came out to the merch table to talk with fans and mugged for photos. He exudes a warmth that transcends his cool or as my friend Rico Viccaro says, he’s got a good soul. If Nile doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he comes pretty close with an iconic image of Keith Richards emblazoned on the left arm of his denim jacket. In 2017, rock and roll is still alive, though,every now and then I know it’s kind of hard to tell.