On the night after Thanksgiving, Willie Nile was in a playful mood. Standing onstage at Jammin’ Java, just outside Washington, D.C., Nile dedicated songs back to back to Abe Lincoln and Malcolm Young of AC/DC.
The first came after the frivolity of wordplay in “All Dressed Up and No Place To Go” in which Nile dialed up characters from Aristotle to the president of the United States and Henry David Thoreau. One song later, the late guitarist Young was credited with inspiration for the guitar groove of “Earth Blues,” a song that Nile wrote thinking about what the earth could say if it could talk. He then proceeded to take on politicians corporations, biological warfare and the Grim Reaper in a diatribe of ecological carnage.
“We’re going to fix this stuff, maybe not tonight but soon,” the innate optimist Nile told the audience, later restating his belief in the goodness of the human race.
The spirit of his new album Children of Paradise is like a call to arms, the rock and roll equivalent of the film Network (and forthcoming play starring Bryan Cranston). Imagine if Nile, like lead character Howard Beale, went to the window and yelled “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
In this day and age, some things are worth ranting about and they make for infectious music. Nile and his four piece band were thrashing and throttling from the get-go energized by the material Nile wrote in response to the current political climate and negativity of the endless twenty-four hour news cycle. In a blink, Nile went from aspiration of “Seeds of a Revolution” and “This Is Our Time” to outright defiance in “Don’t.” Nile was adamant in his refrain “don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz,” though admitted he was unsure about the song’s key line. After questioning himself he said” hell yeah” and could still be heard talking about letting our pervasive negativity affect him at the merch table after showtime. “I refuse,” he said point blank.
The sentiment and anthemic pick me up has revitalized Nile’s career. The seventy-year plus musician has the youthful exuberance of those more than twenty and thirty years younger. Nile literally wears his passion for rock and roll on his sleeve with the image of Mick Jagger emblazoned on the right arm of his jacket. With guitarist Matt Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Jon Weber, Nile has comrades in arms and a tight combo that can stump on the spot from his extensive catalogue.
When Nile called out the song “Cellphones Ringing (In The Pockets of the Dead),”’ he had to ask bassist Pisano what key it was in. When the bassist shot back A minor without hesitation, he wished Hogan “good luck” only to have the guitarist scorch through it with a blistering solo. Nile who self-funded the album, brought up one of the Pledge Music supporters and Americana Highways photographer Michael Aaron’s, who donned a guitar and ablie added guitar fills alongside Matt Hogan on the album’s title track.
On this night Aaron left his camera home knowing Cristina Arrigoni was in the house. Arrigoni, who shot several of the portraits on the cover of Children of Paradise, could be seen stage right shooting in the wings. It was also a special night as it was the first night her new book “The Sound of Hands” has appeared in the U.S. (It will soon be unveiled at the Morrison Hotel gallery.) The book features stunning close-up portraits of thehands of guitar legends and greats.
Nile came out onstage with his notebook of song lyrics culled over five decades. He acted as his own curator covering early songs like “Golden Down” and “Vagabond Moon” (the first song on his debut). It was inspired by the light of the moon seeping into the kitchen of his New York apartment during the middle of the night. Nile seemed surprised that he’s picked songs long forgotten but they have a newfound vibrancy and freshness.
At the start of the second set, Nile came out to play the house piano. “It has the air of an old parlor piano slightly out of tune,” Nile reflected before telling a story about the song he wrote originally intended for the film Gangs of New York. “The Crossing” was inspired about the ancestors coming across the sea from Ireland but it had a universal metaphor for all of us. The landscape of his adopted hometown New York was the backdrop for “Sunrise In New York.” On “Shoulders,” resurrected from his second album Golden Down, Nile turned from his bench admiringly several times as Matt Hogan did a mesmerizing guitar run that we hoped would never end.
Nile went on a run toward the end of the second set covering Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” as Pisano walked across table and Nile and Hogan ventured forth with their guitars into the audience. A turbocharged Bob Dylan‘s “Blowin’ In The Wind” followed, a song he said Dylan wrote at 21 that’s still as relevant as ever. The show ended with “One Guitar” and a rousing encore of the Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated” with Aarons adding second guitar and the daughters of friends on background vocals and bopping in unison.
During the night, fans in the front rows passed notes of thanks to Nile onstage. “We’re thankful you’re all here,” he read out loud from one.
“It works both ways,” Niles countered, talking of friends who put you up on the road and you meet along the way.
We left with memories of the majestic “Shoulders” still playing in our heads, eager to see Arrigoni’s book at the merch table. All the while, we were thinking about where and when we’ll see Willie Nile next. http://www.willienile.com/