Saturday, April 30, 2016

Willie Nile at City Winery

Robert Noonan was raised in a musical family in Buffalo, New York. His grandfather was a vaudeville pianist who played with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie Cantor, and his uncles played boogie-woogie. The youth 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. After college, he reinvented himself as Willie Nile, moved to New York City and began playing the folk circuit in Greenwich Village while also catching the burgeoning punk rock scene across town. His own music then captured the best elements of both worlds, and the folk-rocking storyteller was touted by Bruce Springsteen, the Who's Pete Townshend and many other artists. It seemed like Nile would become the "next big thing," but that never happened. Some 40 years later, Nile released his 10th studio album, World War Willie, on April 1, 2016.

Willie Nile launched his music career as a folk singer, but he was very much a rocker at City Winery tonight. Nile sang stories and strummed an electric guitar or sometimes just wielded a microphone while the three-piece band behind him played a driving wall of sound. The set featured six new songs, a smattering of somewhat older songs (the oldest being 1991's "Heaven Help the Lonely"), and covers of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," and David Bowie's "Heroes," concluding the encores with the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." Towards the end of the set, Nile invited onstage several local musicians, including James Maddock and Patricia Vonne. What united the set was a sense of integrity and maturity that pervaded every performance; the 67-year-old singer-songwriter was equal parts music fan and musician, and so he approached every song with reverence. What was missing, however, was the more nuanced, reflective songs of his earlier days. Perhaps the set would have been just a bit better if Nile had performed a few solo acoustic songs mid-set.

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