Willie Nile is a New York institution. He came out of the Big Apple’s New Wave/CBGB’s scene, making his debut album in 1980. Varieties of bad luck (a year recovering from pneumonia accounted for the delay in the release of that first record; protracted legal and contractual problems with Geffen Records put his career on hold for much of the ’80s) have conspired to account for the fact that he is hardly a household name. Yet he shares stages with household names (check out the YouTube video of him and Springsteen doing one of Nile’s signature tunes, ‘One Guitar’). He may never have hit the big time, but he has the respect of his peers.
At the raucous Whelan’s Saturday night show, on a gig-heavy night, it’s easy to see why. An unreconstructed roots rocker, the now 64-year-old turns in a performance of such power, energy and commitment that it would put pretenders half his age to shame. Inevitably, much material is drawn from recent release American Ride, but all corners of his back catalogue are visited. He travels with a cracking backing band, consisting of the effortlessly adept Matt Hogan on guitar (he makes it look easy), and the rhythm section of Johnny Pisano on bass and Alex Alexander on drums. They are joined on the night, in what turns out to be a bit of a hooley, by a dapper Steve Wickham on fiddle, and various members of the Riptide Movement on backing vocals.
An uptempo cover of ‘Sweet Jane’, in tribute to the recently dearly departed Lou Reed, is prefaced with the remarks, “Some people say Lou was unfriendly, but the last time I met him (at some awards function) he put his arms around me and hugged me.”
In his head, the diminutive Willie Nile is bigger than he actually is, both in terms of physical stature and reputation. He plays Whelan’s like he’s playing the O2 (and it probably isn’t too far-fetched to speculate that he’d play the O2 as though it was as intimate as Whelan’s). He’s been at it long enough that to him, it’s all the same gig. There is a risk of potential ridicule in this attitude, but Nile and his band can front it. After all, as Lucinda Williams has said of him, “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.” He is his own man.