Photos by Lou Montesano
Willie Nile is a New York treasure. His faithful fans make the case he’s a national hero, as important a songwriter and performer as Dylan and Springsteen, but contract disputes early in his career and the whims of the music gods held him back from taking his place alongside the giants who hold him in deserved esteem. Which makes him all the more precious to those fortunate enough to have experienced his music and live performances these many years.
We all wish Willie as much success as possible, but there’s something extra-special about seeing him upclose rather than from distant stadium seats. In the age of big concerts where rock heroes are reduced to tiny figures on vast stages, music fans have become accustomed to viewing electronic images on enormous screens, not unlike watching a DVD at home on the couch. A Willie Nile show is the antidote to arena rock, the power of the music and energy of his performance experienced viscerally, the way rock n’ roll was meant to be heard.
Willie first gained attention playing New York clubs in the Seventies as punk was taking hold. He was more of a traditional songwriter, but as a contemporary of the Ramones, Patti Smith and Richard Hell, his sound had an edge on top of eloquent lyrics layered with great hooks. Four decades later, that downtown edge is still there, in his songwriting and his live shows. Willie is a regular at many mid-size New York concert halls, but on a steamy July night he and his band crossed the East River to perform for the first time at Brooklyn Bowl, treating about 200 fans to a blistering 90-minute set of authentic originals and poignant covers.
The show launched with Willie on electric piano banging out a rollicking version of “Forever Wild,” the lead cut on his new album, World War Willie. Moving over to center stage and picking up his weathered Stratocaster, he and the band, with Matt Hogan on guitar and backing vocals, proceeded to tear the house down with cuts old and new. From his vast collection of great originals, he pulled out “Heaven Help The Lonely,” “House Of A Thousand Guitars” and “Give Me Tomorrow,” which he called a “prayer for peace.” He dedicated “The Innocent Ones,” from the album of the same name, to the people killed or injured in the recent series of demented shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas. From American Ride, the title track, a ballad that could serve as America’s rock anthem, and “This Is Our Time” further showcased Willie’s superb songwriting skills. Rising Brit rocker James Maddock joined the band to help out with vocals on a couple of numbers, including a rousing “Hell Yeah.”
A songwriter as gifted as Nile covers only the most essential songs, and from World War Willie the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground uber-classic “Sweet Jane,” the song that launched a thousand bands, made a welcome appearance late in the set. Not much later, Nile and the band took on another anthem, the Bowie-Eno classic “Heroes,” the four musicians on stage sounding like a rock and roll orchestra.
It’s amazing that virtually every song Nile has written seems to climax with a memorable, anthemic chorus. The tunes are consistently excellent and the way he puts them across, with such authority and energy, the fact that he somehow remains unrecognized by many who claim to love music is astonishing. Willie Nile deserves his place among rock’s royalty. He’s a prince who has yet to ascend the throne, but he continues to write great music and tour around the world, developing a deep, personal relationship with his fans. His authenticity extends beyond his music to his gentle and humble persona. “Willie is all real, all the time,” a musical colleague who knows him well is fond of saying.
-Peter Jurew and Lou Montesano