LIVE: Willie Nile @WAMC’s The Linda, 02/18/2022
“So many songs, so many songs,” mused Willie Nile Friday night, leafing through a fat notebook of lyrics propped on the piano at WAMC’s The Linda. And he kept choosing winners, one rocking or tender tune after another before a crowd that kept growing so the staff scrambled to set up more chairs.
Nile joked he’d played the place 20 times, but while it’s more like half a dozen, he’s clearly comfortable here. “Pardon me as I have some fun tonight,” he quipped after a digressive song intro. But while he stressed his whole life is “about the songs, all about the songs,” he’s also a skilled presenter whose stories amuse and entertain almost as much as the songs.
He left his band at home, showing up solo with two acoustic guitars, two lyric notebooks and a driver/merch helper who set up dozens of vinyl albums and CDs, products of an artistic output eye-popping-impressive in both quality and quantity.
Then he went on stage alone and amazed for nearly two hours – with tunes, tales and even a speaker-phone chat – phone to the vocal mic – with his 104-year-old father, back in Buffalo. When his dad announced he’d “just got back from Tommy’s” (one of Nile’s brothers), Nile asked if they’d played cards and if he’d won. “I always win!” said his dad – and Nile immediately coined an aphorism: “The last liar always wins” likely the bones of a future song.
In that same way, Nile told how hearing guitarist friend Danny Kortchmar disavow romantic intentions toward a woman passing their restaurant table saying, “I Don’t Do Crazy Anymore” became a song, and a surprisingly deserted lower Manhattan streetscape shaped his new “The Day the Earth Stood Still” album.
But I digress, let me rewind here.
Nile sang strong and clear right out of the box, stretching word-endings, Dylan-like in his opener, “Places I Have Never Been.” This fits: Buffalo is as midwestern rust-bent beat up as Dylan’s Duluth; and both found voice and direction in Greenwich Village. After the musing “Rite of Spring,” he spoke of a recent Town Hall concert with Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and Rosanne Cash to introduce “Life on Bleecker Street.” Underdog sympathy powered “The Innocent Ones” as he invited the crowd into the song with handclaps for the first time of what would be many.
He test-strummed his way tentatively into “The Doors of Paradise,” then got everybody singing in its “nah-nah” chorus, full of spirit and sound.
Then he stepped to the piano, going all Floyd Cramer in “Somebody I Know,” “I Can’t Do Crazy Anymore” and “That’s Enough for Me.” Then he dedicated “The Crossing,” a slow sad waltz, to Mary Ann, a fan. He generally chose slower tunes at the piano than when he strummed guitar, and he flat-picked like a rock-band rhythm player, finger-picking only occasionally. Noting he’d taken piano lessons at eight, a family tradition from his Vaudeville bandleader grandfather, he soloed some at the keyboard, rarely on guitar.
Returning center stage and grabbing up his acoustic six-string, he saluted what he called “the dream that is this country.” Then he wandered the land in “American Ride,” another singalong, as was “New York Is Rocking” – rocking for sure.
He slowed the pace to phone his dad, announced he’d re-married in the past year, in Italy, and sang a poignant pledge of love, “I Will Stand,” really touching.
Back at the piano, he built the dramatic “Across the River” in waves, grafting two solos into a soulful flow that echoed 1960s epic girl-group pop. And he defused the Manhattan streets desolation of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” by chanting a cryptic line from the 1951 sci-fi film as fans who recognized it laughed. Nile cited his Dylan album “Positively Bob” to introduce the rollicking “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here he said he’d try to rhyme a lyric with “Linda” to honor the venue, then paired “drinking with a ninja” and “playing at the Linda.” Close enough that everybody laughed – and sang along.
He closed with his familiar one-two punch. “House of A Thousand Guitars,” celebrated the power of guitar bards of rock, folk and blues. Then “One Guitar” asserted that just one singer with one guitar packs that punch, all alone – as Nile had proved all night.
And he got the crowd singing with him both in “One Guitar” and his departure-less encore “Little Light,” a call for love in a broken world. At the end, he stopped playing guitar and joined his voice with everybody’s.
As fans lined up to say hello, collect autographs on newly-bought albums or take selfies, Nile welcomed everyone.
He told me a filmmaker is producing a documentary on him and reminded me, as he’d announced from the stage, that he’ll open for The Who on May 28 at Bethel Woods Center. This comes 42 years after Nile first toured with the British rockers, and happens on the site where The Who played at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
You can’t make this stuff up; just as neither the Who nor Nile could have imagined it.