One of rock’s great singer/songwriters finds pure joy in playing the music of his hero.
By Steve Houk
There’s no doubt…Willie Nile is on a roll.
The 68-year-old rock and roll mainstay and almost peerless songwriter is coming off months of worldwide touring behind his acclaimed latest record World War Willie, and he continues to gain new fans while also retaining the respect of both critics and his loyal fans alike.
So when he was asked to close a Bob Dylan birthday tribute show in New York City a few months back, he jumped at the chance, and then some magic happened. Not only did he blow the room away, but Nile felt the Dylan vibe grab him, the music of one of his true heroes really took hold. So he decided to record a whole album of Dylan songs and has been ecstatic at the result. And like anything he does, it’s all about having fun playing music.
“It’s a labor of love, because it was fun,” Nile said from Michigan in between shows on his current tour. “I mean, the reason I got into this business in the first place was for fun. The beauty of music, the thrill of expressing yourself, whether that’s about anti-war, or about love, or life, or mystic revelations or visions, or whatever. This…is fun.”
Nile, who appears at The Hamilton on Saturday, has been a favorite of rock fans and rock musicians alike ever since he burst back onto the scene in the early 90’s after recording two records and then kissing the music business goodbye — “It wasn’t fun, it became more about business than music” — and starting a family in the 80’s in his native Buffalo. Ever since his return, he has crafted evocative, brilliant music on one album after another, evoking his hero Dylan as well as other songwriters like his pal Bruce Springsteen and others. But the Dylan project has him more energized than ever, and it all became clear that night at the City Winery that he wanted to do more than just sing Dylan at the show.
“They wanted me to close the show, so one night I went through every song on his website,” Nile said. “And I thought about each one…no, not that one, no, nuh uh, OK, well, maybe that one, I was really looking for songs I could bring something to. So I picked out four songs, and we brought the house down. I opened up with Love Minus Zero/No Limit, I said to the crowd that it was a beautiful love song and you don’t hear it. And then I did Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, like Bolero, and the place, I mean, after each verse they’re cheering. I mean, the guy was 21 years old, writing a song like that. And then I did Rainy Day Women and then we closed with You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. It was so much fun that I thought, ya know what, I can sing these songs, and I wanna pay a tribute to Bob. And his songs speak for themselves.”
Still on a buzz from the tribute, Nile picked a handful of other Dylan tunes he thought he could bring the most to, and hit the studio with a killer band that included his own bandmates Johnny Paisano and Matt Hogan, Spin Doctors’ drummer Aaron Comess and British singer/songwriter James Maddock. And by all accounts, everyone who has heard the rough cuts, including some people very close to Dylan himself, is blown away by the result.
“The record is off the hook,” Nile said enthusiastically. “The reaction that I’m getting from the few people who’ve heard it…yeah not him, but others…it’s a blast. The thing is all the musicians who played on it, everyone kept after each song, and every single vocal is live. The vibe, the players…we all kept exclaiming, as you know ‘cuz you play in bands…we all we would say, can you believe this lyric, this song, what the hell! I’m starting to think just from the initial reaction, that maybe this could be somethin’.”
Nile goes way back with Dylan, not only holding him up as one of his greatest influences — “He just opened so many doors for me personally, and for our culture for sure” — but also as a colleague in the music business from the very beginning.
“When my first record came out in 1980, his publishing company, they administered my publishing. I think they represented two people, David Amram and me. So I met him back then. And I met him again when I was playing with Springsteen at Shea Stadium, the end of Bruce’s tour in 2003. I got there for the very last show, and Bob was there, and they played Highway 61.”
If there’s one point that Willie Nile keeps making, it’s that whether it’s his own music or Dylan’s, playing music in general needs to be fun, it needs to be enjoyable, or why do it? And the way things are going for Nile, it looks like he will be having fun rocking and rolling well into his 70’s.
“People say, how are you able to do this kind of show at your age? And I go, you know what, clearly the music has kept me going. No doubt about it. I’m having the time of my life. Even if I’m tired or not well, I go onstage and start singing, and boom. And I have always pursued my heart and my instincts, for better or worse, ya know, the ups and down of being an artist. And it’s paid off in spades.”
Willie Nile with special guest Jamie McLean Band performs Saturday April 8th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.