Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Earnest Dedication(s): At City Winery, Willie Nile Impresses Yet Again, on a Quieter Note -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
accompanied by Johnny Pisano
w/ opening act Nicholas Tremulis
City Winery, Chicago
April 14, 2018

The ongoing viability of rock music is a subject regularly on my mind, and although I've often rhapsodized about it on this blog--without much to say beyond that there are still great bands I love to see, but not many new ones I know of--a variety of stimuli have prompted me to acutely consider it yet again.

From articles suggesting how the concert business may soon be hurting after the announced retirement of several legacy acts, to the deaths over the past few years of several artists I greatly enjoyed, to discussions with friends who attended the South by Southwest conclave, to the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide--from which it could be argued rock 'n roll has never regenerated--there is likely gist for another meandering Seth Saith piece lamenting the future state of my favorite art form.

But while I believe there is genuine reason to be chagrined and concerned about relative lack of new rock acts with the seeming ability to rise above the din, one thing that does hearten me is the knowledge that--at least in terms of recorded music--I can conceivably be sustained for multiple decades with quality rock that already exists but which I have yet to discover.

In terms of cherished rock artists that I've come across in the 21st century, a few have arisen anew--Arcade Fire, The Killers, Maximo Park--but in terms of acts to which I was long oblivious, along with The Wildhearts a singer/songwriter named Willie Nile now stands near the top.

I learned of Nile as a FOTB--friend of the Boss--on the excellent Bruce Springsteen fansite, Backstreets.com, some time after the release of his wonderful 2006 album, The Streets of New York.

Prior to that, Nile had put out albums--to some acclaim, but not my awareness--in 1980, 1981, 1991 and 1999. See his Wikipedia page for some explanation of the odd cadence, seemingly due to legal and contractual issues.

Willie has put out six studio albums since Streets of New York, and I have now seen him in concert seven times, always bestowing @@@@@ or, as here, @@@@1/2 (on my 5-star scale).

Most of his Chicago area shows have looped in longtime local troubadour Nicholas Tremulis, and Saturday at City Winery Tremulis opened the show with an engaging 45-minute solo acoustic set.

Tremulis was talkative throughout, and after sharing that his erstwhile equipment van had broken down just that day, he sardonically and repeatedly referenced hoped-for audience generosity in helping him out.

I can't cite every song he played, and may not have titles quite right, but the first three were seemingly "Bless It All," "Red Line" and "Washington."

Tremulis also played an Irish country song--"Rambling Rover," I believe--covered Buck Owens' "I Don't Hear You" and did a fine tune he said he wrote "over the phone" with another favorite of mine, Alejandro Escovedo.

As best I could tell, this was called "Without You With Me."

After paying tribute to the recently passed Yvonne Staples, he ended his set with "Lover Man (Where Can You Be?)."

Tremulis would return to the stage for the last third of Willie Nile's set, but for the most part the headliner was accompanied by just his bass playing collaborator, Johnny Pisano.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover Nile wasn't playing with a full band, particularly as I had enticed three friends to also attend, and it wasn't quite the "OMG, he's awesome" affair his full-tilt shows have been.

But he and Pisano (and eventually Tremulis) played for a generous two hours, with tickets ranging from just $22-$30.

Without being locked into a band setlist, Willie took a nicely ad hoc approach, choosing songs from a big binder--see the setlist I posted to Setlist.fm--and telling lengthy anecdotes before nearly every one, and dedicating most to multiple inspirations.

Before playing "This is Our Time," he spoke with pride of not only meeting the social activist, Malala, but in having that song serve as a theme at a recent event honoring her.

Among others, he name-dropped Bob Dylan and Edgar Allan Poe prior to "Life on Bleecker Street," and performed two strong new songs--"Have I Ever Told You" and "Looking for Someone"--that should appear on an upcoming album.

The latter was written in Nashville with Andrew Dorff--a noted songwriter and brother of Stephen Dorff--shortly before he passed at 40 while vacationing in Turks and Caicos, and Nile spoke of him quite admiringly and mournfully.

Willie also told of visiting John Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool, where he was inspired to write the Beatlesque, "My Little Girl," and mentioned that "God Laughs" has a Buddy Holly vibe.

With Pisano following him adroitly, Nile showed his piano aptitude on "Sunrise in New York City," "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)" and "The Crossing."

Although the fans bellowing out song titles were buffoonish, hearing him do the requested "Whole World With You" would have been sweet, as it's probably my favorite of his.

But amid a couple Dylan covers--"Rainy Day Women" and Blowin' in the Wind," both on Nile's recent Positively Bob tribute album--and his own "Les Champs Elysees," "House of a Thousand Guitars" and "One Guitar," I'm glad he did "Vagabond Moon" for the insistent shouters, if only to shut them up.

All in all, it was rather like a show I saw Nile do at Evanston's SPACE in 2015, with just Pisano alongside.

Without the electric guitars and drums, it just isn't quite as scintillating, but the acoustic performance and laid-back atmosphere allowed for Willie Nile's songwriting and storytelling to shine through.

While my pals who hadn't seen him previously weren't quite salivating with praise, they agreed it was a strong show by an estimable performer, and I believe Nile made fans out of a couple of nearby couples--one from Australia--who had come largely due to affinity for the City Winery venue, but bequeathed a standing ovation when the show ended.

Without being amped up, part of my "Dylan and Springsteen meet the Ramones and Clash" description to them didn't quite ring raucous, but even in pushing 70, Willie Nile well-proved why he remains one of my favorite artists of the 21st century.

And, at least for the time being, content with the present state of rock 'n roll. 

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