In the second of his two special reports, Gary talks Willie Nile in New York and New Jersey
The rock and roll dream is dead. Audiences are fragmented. Business models are broken.
As young musicians work their social media profiles to promote music most of their audience don’t want to pay for, old rockers will not fade away.
Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, where many older performers were among those gathered on a winter weekend for the Light of Day festival in aid of the fight against Parkinson’s Disease. The dominant figure in Asbury’s musical heritage was absent. Bruce Springsteen usually plays at the annual event but the opening of his River Tour kept him away this year – a cock-up by the Boss’s diary keeper rather than a snub, according to locals for whom Bruce’s infallibility would shame any Pope. Bruce ‘doesn’t do dates’ (of the calendar variety as opposed to gigs – he’s always gigging) and Bruce doesn’t do mistakes. The truth about the tour’s timing is inevitably more prosaic and has to do with the availability of ice hockey stadiums.
But for every Bruce Springsteen there are ten thousand nearly men: the almost famous, the never-wases and the has-beens. Few had Bruce’s talent and only one has his luck.
And then there’s Willie Nile.
He’s four-times a grandfather, but in an age where niche markets can provide a healthy living, if not the rock’n’roll lifestyle, more than a hundred fans were prepared to pay fifty dollars each to hear his new album, watch him talk about it, sing along with the playback, and then play a handful of the songs live. It all happened at 3.30 on a Friday afternoon in one of Asbury Park’s more enduring venues of the post-Springsteen/Southside Johnny boom years. The Saint, on Main Street rather than on the shore, has been here since 1994. Nile explained to the loyal and apparently well-to-do audience: “We’re in a rock club, so let’s listen to a rock record.”
He brought his band too, to deliver flawless versions of the new songs. Most were cut as live with few overdubs. When extra talent was required Nile appears to have looked no further than the top drawer: a country guitar solo from the Eagles’ Steuart Smith; backing vocals by the equally distinctive James Maddock.
On this Friday afternoon though, anyone who still values the rather shallow mantra that a live rendering is somehow better for sounding ‘just like the record’ would not have been disappointed.
Nile’s band are a tight and impressive unit, with pedigrees from Miley Cyrus (guitarist Matt Hogan) to David Bowie (drummer Alex Alexander). I saw them four times in as many days, from New York’s Cutting Room to Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre. They upped the ante for showmanship and on-stage frolics with each show. Bass player Johnny Pisano seems to be mischief-maker-in-chief, but his boss is a willing accomplice. Hogan is the most histrionic of the three. A banshee might envy the wailing of his Telecaster, held head-high as if to bask in the heat from his lightning arpeggios. His primary guitar face seems to be one of open-mouthed joy. The new album – as yet untitled – is the result of an online pledge campaign which raised 300% of target in an indecently short time. If just a tiny fraction of that is used to ensure Nile brings the full band to Europe this year it will have been money well spent.
Hogan was not on the last UK tour just over a year ago, a disappointment compounded by charging admission prices a third of what the market will stand, if the cost of entry to the album playback is any measure. True, it was a one-off, but not even a full show.
For those at the Saint, the faith was rewarded In trumps with a full hand of spades and aces up the sleeve. The songs are crafted with the seasoned writer’s flair for wordplay, monster hooks, the artful assimilation of classic riffage with new musical ideas and a self-deprecating humour – “Grandpa rocks, grandpa rocks. He ain’t quite ready for that pine-top box.”
The Saint’s owner Scott Stamper – a music fan of Scots-Irish parentage who came to Asbury “because of the music” stood at the back, beaming: “Those choruses! They’re instant. I knew it would be good, but I didn’t know it would be this good.”
The collection is nicely sequenced to bear repeat listening. It’ll be available from April 1st, allowing plenty of time for pre-sales momentum to build. The date may yet be portentous. Do audiences beyond the already converted want a rock record by a performer at the wrong end of his mid-sixties? They should, but you can see why it’s easier to buy Adele.
I have seen many of the four piece bands acclaimed as the finest live acts in rock history and the Willie Nile Band compares favourably in almost every department. The guitar player is technically more accomplished than Pete Townshend, Johnny Ramone, Wilko Johnson, the Edge or Brian May. The bass player has more stage presence than his counterparts with any of the above: the drummer is more versatile. Are they more original? Of course not, but that brings us back to Springsteen. He’s never been original; just better than what went before.
The Boss once said of his band: “We didn’t want to be famous. We didn’t want to be rich. We wanted to be great.”
Willie Nile is great, but greatness may no longer be enough. I have seen rock’n’roll past and its name is Willie Nile. Catch him whenever you can. You won’t be disappointed. And Hell Yeah – to commandeer one of the new songs’ titles – buy the album. It’s great.