Just another weekend night down at the rock club, right? Not on your life, pal – on November 15 at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, NYC’s finest songwriter brought it like his life depended on it.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM
Anyone thinking that, at age 67, Willie Nile might be losing some of his restless, exuberant luster would be grossly misinformed. He’s many miles away from slowing down and anyone attempting to bury him before his time would be hard-pressed to close the box. The poster boy for shoulda-coulda-woulda has had, to date, more career and critical highs than he’s had oil changes, yet he’s quick to rise above any negative takeaways or cynical fallout.
In fact, Nile remains at the high point of his career–living for every moment, tirelessly reminding the listener that all he’s ever really cared about is his undying passion for the music he both lives and loves. When it comes to the party faithful, all Nile’s die-hard fans care about is Willie Nile. Unlike so many of his burned-out counterparts, this time-tested legend has continually charted an undeviating course since the release of his inaugural masterpiece in 1980. Exceptional release upon exceptional release – each packed with street-smart, original material – has kept pace with changing times and evolving tastes, earning the Buffalo, New York, dynamo the undying respect of heavy-hitters from Townshend and Springsteen to Bono and Ian Hunter to no less than the late Lou Reed.
Why? Because Willie gets it. He cares about it. And he gives it, night after night, to anyone who will take the time to listen. His magical body of songs have reached mythical proportion, hammered home with the same youthful intensity and unbridled passion that, this many years later, seems too good to be true. Yet it’s true to the bone – and always has been.
On this occasion, on a lowly Sunday night, Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern was filled with dedicated fans, cherry-picked from various age groups, each bitten by the alchemic attraction of a Willie Nile show. The ones who know every lyric and the ones Willie is dedicated to giving his all for, get far more than their money’s worth with each and every performance.
In my case, not having seen him perform since the early ‘80s in this very club, I was struck, like a sack of bricks, by the crystal-clear observation that Willie and his band-mates – wildman guitarist Matt Hogan, Italian stallion bassist Johnny Pisano, and rock-solid drummer, Alex Alexander – were having an absolute ball onstage all night long, as if they’d only been playing together for months instead of all these years. Much credit for this can be attributed to Nile – a man who is truly grateful to be doing something he loves to do, treating his fellow musicians and his audience as the family they’ve become.
Local opener Peter Elkas set the stage for mutual respect, having worked with Nile earlier this year as a fellow fundraiser for Parkinson’s Light of Day program. His relatively relaxed set of rock-tinged, singer-songwriter fare seemed the perfect appetizer for what was to follow. From the first punkish strains of The Innocent One’s “Hear You Breathe,” Nile hit the stage like a runaway train, all wiry-haired, hyper-active expressiveness, brandishing his hands like an Italian Richard Lewis, feet kicking the air while thrusting his battle-scarred guitar skyward like an exclamation mark on a mission. With never a better foil than this supremely animated band behind him, Nile explodes, song-after-glorious-song, each delivered within an inch of his life (“I’ll play like this ‘til I drop – and that won’t be tonight…”). The pulse-heavy “The Innocent Ones” – itself, a hard-driving anthem – was briefly interrupted by a broken bass string, earning Nile’s playful chiding, “Wha??? Nobody breaks a bass string!”, setting yet another stage for Nile doing something else he does so well: tell stories.
Moving on to the equally propulsive “Heaven Help the Lonely,” the crowd was quick to join in on its train whistle chorus, caught up by Nile’s infectious enthusiasm. By request, Nile dipped back into “Holy War,” which he admitted to not having played for some time, but it seemed a suitable, anti-war antidote, offered in tribute to the recent Paris attacks and delivered with typical punch. A lovely story about meeting Buddy Holly’s wife preceded his Buddy-Holly-via-Bo-Diddley turn on “Not Fade Away” while the considerably gentle touch of “Give Me Tomorrow” added a slightly preachy, yet melodic flourish. Written for his two daughters, “She’s Got My Heart” hit a thoughtful, sensitive nerve as only a proud father can do, accentuated by acoustic guitar and the band’s breathy harmonies. The title track for his breakout 11th release (marking his 11th comeback?), American Ride, would sit proudly alongside anything his pal Springsteen has ever done – with its road-trip tour of the countryside, referencing multiple musical signposts along the way. But we know that. A dedication to Hank Williams followed with a piano-free “If I Ever See the Light,” losing none of its Jersey-flavored drive. “House of 1000 Guitars” referenced Hendrix while underscoring Nile’s love for rock’s most catalytic converter, this raucous version reverberating through the ‘shoe’s well-stressed ceiling. A brilliant cover of Lou Reed’s sacrosanct “Sweet Jane” (together with a touching tale about their last goodbye) – which will appear on Nile’s forthcoming next release – reinvented the song with the added advantage of a twisted bass-line from Pisano, transforming it into more tribute than cover, breathing fresh life into its time-honored position high atop rock’s totem.
Speaking of tributes, Nile’s version of the late Jim Carroll’s “People That Died” was served up at a hyper-speed, injected with the real-life pain of Nile’s personal losses for a slightly haunting effect. Drummer Alexander was left to work out on a solo as his bandmates took a momentary recharge, bringing opener Elkas back with them, together with hockey broadcaster Dave Hodge (who had introduced the band) for a rousing “One Guitar.” This erupted into a boisterous, old-school sing-along on both sides of the stage. An award-winning paean to social action, this positive call-to-action places Nile squarely in Woody Guthrie’s camp, both in the dramatic force of his writing and in his unflagging need to give back. His music often carries a pointed message, his lyrics distinctive and unforgiving, yet always dispatched with the muscular crunch of a hard rock assault.
Calls for an encore were immediate and essential – you can’t be brought to a fever pitch and dropped off a cliff. Nor can Nile ever go home early. The high-torque intensity of this show is all rock’n’roll firepower, presented with a fun-loving sincerity seldom seen in today’s music circles. Some play for the money. Some play for the fun of it – and the band soon returned to drive home this point with a trilogy of tunes paying homage to Nile’s roots as hardcore music fan. Beginning with a rapturously rowdy “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Rivieras’ “California Sun” followed right on its tail – the perfect segue to pre-Beatlemania. This was chased off the stage by the Ramones’ pop-fueled “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” – Niles’ New York City underpinnings always framing the fiery, rebellious spirit he injects into everything he does. If anything was missing, it could only be some quiet downtime to savor the softer, gentler moments displayed on the classically-trained pianist’s latest album, If I Was A River, which reveals a comparative alter-ego of acoustic-edged song-craft, further reminding us of his abilities as a writer as it showcases his abilities as a soulful, impassioned singer.
Given the energy of the night, however, this may have to wait for another tour. Those in the audience were eventually forced to yield to what was, otherwise, a formidable, sweat-inducing workout destined to bolster anyone still on two feet for the work week ahead.