Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Even on a Less Raucous Note, Willie Nile Delivers Another Storied Performance -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Willie Nile
w/ Johnny Pisano on bass
Opening act Jefferson Grizzard
SPACE, Evanston, IL
February 13, 2015

On Sunday, December 7, 1980, Willie Nile was recording at the Record Plant in New York City.

So was John Lennon, in a separate studio, accompanied by Yoko Ono.

They didn't interact directly but when the former Beatle conveyed to a recording engineer that he needed some guitar strings, the New York singer/songwriter supplied them, helping to enable the last song Lennon would record.

Nile considered accompanying the strings with a note of admiration to one of his musical heroes, but refrained as the two musicians were to meet each other that Tuesday.

On Monday, through a shared colleague who requested an autograph as John and Yoko were heading out into the night--under the guise that it was for the guy who had given him the strings, though the requester was really seeking it for a relative--Lennon warmly acknowledged what Nile had done.

Mere minutes later, John Lennon was murdered in the entryway of the Dakota, where he and Yoko lived.

This story was told with great poignancy by Willie Nile on Friday night within the comfortable, relatively intimate Evanston venue known as SPACE.

Dedicating it to Lennon, he then proceeded to play a song called "Lost" from his most recent album, If I Was a River, a piano-based record on which Nile was fortuitously able to use the same piano that both he and John had played at the Record Plant in 1980.

The unique combination of excellent music and enlightening storytelling that essentially reveals the history of rock 'n roll--Nile also shared that he had visited the Buddy Holly crash site just the day before arriving in Evanston, had enjoyed a previous conversation with Holly's widow Maria Elena, was recently given a private tour of Lennon's childhood home in Liverpool and wrote/recorded tunes with, for and/or about Roger McGuinn, Danny Kortchmar, Jeff Buckley and Levon Helm, among others--helps to explain why I make a point of seeing Willie Nile every time he comes to town.

Without meaning to be flippant or facetious, nor disrespectful to anyone's faith or beliefs, I often say--and more frequently feel--that "Rock is my religion."

And if the Beatles are my most exalted deity and Bruce Springsteen my high priest, Willie Nile is my favorite missionary (with great respect to other cherished troubadours such as Alejandro Escovedo, Paul Weller and Ike Reilly).

Now in his mid-'60s, Nile released his self-titled debut album in 1980, which garnered enough attention that Pete Townshend hand-picked him to open for The Who. But after 1981's Golden Down, due to  "protracted legal problems" (per Wikipedia), he released only two more studio albums--and quite spaced out at that--before 2006's wonderful Streets of New York.

Thanks to a laudatory mention on the Springsteen fanzine site, Backstreets.com, I bought Streets of New York soon after its release, and still like it best of all of Willie's albums.

I first caught him live in 2009 after the release of House of A Thousand Guitars and found him to be absolutely phenomenal. I wasn't blogging regularly then, but would have rated the show--which like the next two had him backed locally by Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra--@@@@@ (out of 5).

That's also the rating I gave to Willie Nile gigs in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the last at Evanston's SPACE with his own backing band.

I've introduced myself to Willie after shows and have had CDs signed and photos taken; he's a great, extremely warm guy so I hope he's not too offended that I'm giving Friday night's show--accompanied only by bassist Johnny Pisano of his regular backing band--1/2@ less than the others.

The 90-minute performance was certainly terrific and I loved it; it just didn't quite blow my mind like the full-band, full-bore shows that have left me a bit more ebulliently ecstatic. Still, I'm happy to have witnessed Nile play in a slightly less feverish vein as it further amplifies what a great and prolific songwriter he is.

And--even if he's toiling in smallish clubs without great name recognition beyond roomfuls of diehard fans worldwide; it was nice to see SPACE near capacity on Friday--his place in rock history. 

You can see the full setlist that I posted to Setlist.fm, but everything he and Pisano played sounded great, even in leaving out at least a couple dozen songs I would have loved to hear.

Illustrating my above comment about him being a rock 'n roll missionary, Nile's numerous stories, recollections and dedications only added to the evening's sense of purpose--beyond just righteous entertainment--as he shared not only amazing anecdotes, but espoused (as is close to my heart) the idea that music and culture can truly transform lives and change the world.

He dedicated "The Innocent Ones," the great title track of his 2010 album, to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, spoke about visiting John Lennon's childhood home--where with Paul McCartney "Please Please Me" and other early Beatles' hits were written--before playing his own Beatlesque "My Little Girl" and told of meeting Maria Elena at South by Southwest prior to launching into a great cover of "Not Fade Away."

And this was only halfway through the show.

(Fascinatingly, per Willie, Maria Elena shared that Buddy adored Little Richard, but when the latter came to visit him in Texas in the late '50s, the racist views of Holly's father precluded Richard from being let into the family home.)

Showing himself to be incredibly deft on the piano, Nile performed "Sunrise in New York City," "Lost"--preceded by the story at top--and "I Can't Do Crazy (Anymore)," which is a song title taken from a comment noted songwriter/sideman Danny Kortchmar made to him after a beautiful woman was pointed out on the streets of New York. (I also like how If I Was a River is a sly reference to Nile's last name.)

Jefferson Grizzard
Reaching even further back in his personal/cultural history lesson, Willie also shared that his grandfather ran a vaudeville orchestra for 30 years, through which such luminaries as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie Cantor became family friends.

After a romp through "House of A Thousand Guitars," whose lyrics cite many other greats, Nile brought opening act Jefferson Grizzard--a fine singer, songwriter from Rome, GA with what sounded like a Jerseyesque growl to me--onstage for "When Levon Sings," which Willie wrote after the death of his close friend, Levon Helm of The Band.

Grizzard stayed onstage for the "One Guitar," an anthemic song of peace on which Nile has repeatedly been accompanied by his pal Bruce Springsteen, including just a few weeks ago at the Light of Day Benefit for Parkinson's Disease. (My clip of Friday's version is below.)

Even with Willie playing acoustic guitar or piano throughout, it was far from a sedate evening, but for his sole encore Nile eschewed common choices by the Ramones or Clash--both friends and inspirations--or his great cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," which he mentioned while citing longtime friend Norm Winer of WXRT.

Instead he ended a great show with a touching take of "On the Road to Calvary," noting that he had written it for Jeff Buckley and would have loved to have heard him sing it.

I said hello to Willie by the merch stand after the show, and he warmly told me that I could reach out to him for an interview. I hope to make that happen in the coming weeks, but already feel like I know--and try to share--much about a man who has become one of my favorite performers.

And even if--sans electric guitars and drums--Friday's show at SPACE was a bit less rocking than ones past, it reiterated my belief that great rock 'n roll is about much more than just great rock 'n roll.


Here's a clip I shot of "One Guitar," with Willie Nile, Johnny Pisano and Jefferson Grizzard:

And here's a Spotify playlist for those wishing to learn more about Willie Nile (including a number of tunes he played at SPACE):

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