Thursday, December 26, 2013

Willie Nile at the Highline Ballroom

Robert Anthony Noonan was born into a musical family in Buffalo, New York. His uncles played boogie-woogie and his grandfather was a vaudeville pianist who played with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie Cantor. The young boy listened to the music of Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino, brought home by his older brothers. He began playing piano at age eight and took classical music lessons until he was a teenager, when he taught himself his first rock and roll song. Still in his early teens, he began to compose short songs. He later studied philosophy at the University at Buffalo, and during the summers he made trips into New York City to frequent hootenanny clubs like Folk City and the Gaslight. After graduation, he took the name Willie Nile and rented an apartment in Greenwich Village. He performed regularly in folk rock circles, particularly at Kenny's Castaways, while drawing inspiration from the emerging downtown punk scene, as he began hanging out at clubs like CBGB's, where he would see bands like the Patti Smith Group, Television, the Ramones and Talking Heads. His music was influenced by both the singer-songwriter and the punk rock approaches. Since his debut album in 1980, Nile has disappeared and reappeared from the spotlight several times. He released his eighth studio album, American Ride, this past June.

Headlining the Highline Ballroom tonight was yet another successful homecoming by the city that has adopted Willie Nile. Decades ago, he was the Village troubadour touted as the new Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Little of this was seen tonight. For most of the nearly two-hour set, the 65-year-old veteran performer avoided the folkie style of his origins and led his band in loud and fast street-tough rock and roll. The band — Nile on rhythm guitar and piano, Matt Hogan on lead guitar, Johnny Pisano on bass and Alex Alexander on drums — shook the roof with wall-of-sound backup. They ripped into some of his older songs with abandon, particularly on "House of a Thousand Guitars," but the show was largely a showcase of new songs as well, beginning with "This Is Our Time" and "Life on Bleecker Street." The show slowed down mid-set as Nile moved to the electric piano. Shortly thereafter, though, the soft and gentle "Love Is a Train" started solo on the piano and gravitated to a crushing full band powerhouse. A fiery cover of the late Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” had the band rocking full-time again. Always one to make quick friends, Nile towards the end of the evening invited Bret Alexander of the opening act, the Badlees, onstage for Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," local rocker Jesse Malin (who finally roused the audience to its feet) for "One Guitar," and several other musicians for an encore medley of Ramones songs. Maybe we could have enjoyed more troubadour and a little less rocker, but the show was splendid nevertheless.

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