Willie Nile



Having a ball with Glen Matlock joining in the fun (Nov 11)

Serious stuff, with Stephen Ellery on Sax (Nov 11)

Willie Nile

Tropic at Ruislip, London, April 15, 2012


Willie Talent: the intimate renaissance of an unsung punk icon with a little help from a very special friend


As the five-foot something figure of Willie Nile with a large bouffant hair-piece struts on stage wearing a patched leather jacket, there seems to be solid evidence that either he or you are misplaced citizens of a bygone time. Then the band launch into a twangy bass number with Celtic overtones and your suspicions are confirmed: this is the 1970s. As the band pass the first chorus of “Singin’ Bell” and into a pre-chorus explosion of raw punk, the crowd are rejuvenated from their bobbing anticipation into ecstatic leaps and this timeless transportation is complete.

It is the climatic finale show of a mini European tour, for the New York based band, and all indications of fatigue are left backstage while an impassioned Nile exhibits his brash showmanship and magnetism that – despite his small stature and aged face – very few artists can rival. The only obvious modern equivalent, with this ability to blind-fold an audience from their mundane existences and yank them through their own narrative, would be Dave Grohl.

Before the a capella intro of “One Guitar” – a song that Bruce Springsteen played live with the band earlier this year – Nile delivers a sermon, his creed, which evidently fuels his incessant need to tour the world. He stresses the significance of “one guitar, one person” and the influence they can have on the world. His stories of individualistic empowerment are reminiscent of Bob Dylan, but the accompanying soundtrack with rolling drums and repeated “na na na” phrases resonate closer to Green Day. Nile proves that punk can be modern, relevant, and contain sonic mastery whilst dodging the sell-out status that Billie Joe Armstrong’s outfit now comes to symbolise.

The rumbling introduction of “Holy War” is further evidence of Nile’s capability to be contemporary; this particular song is a political critique of modern terrorism. The lyrics convey a clichéd response to America’s “war on terror” as they place blame only with the middle-eastern terrorists rather than looking inward. However, the biased political reverberations are compensated by Nile’s musical craftsmanship which salvages a potentially mundane chorus with exhilarating melodies and juxtaposing refrains.

Just as the room’s energy climaxes and the middle-aged crowd reach the peak of their relived teen angst, Nile drops the tone with a few sombre numbers. The poignant ballad, “On the Road to Calvary” is dedicated to Jeff Buckley, another of Nile’s past acquaintances. All bar chatter ceases as Nile sighs through the lamenting lyrics with allusions to Buckley’s tragic drowning in Tennessee: “You carry me ’cross the mighty river, you lift me up above the raging sea”. Dedicating a song to a lost legend may sound insincere, but Nile’s tribute is of real anguish and genuine emotion for a musician that was a profound influence.

Finally, Nile cements his cult-status as underground music guru by welcoming Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols to the stage. In fitting tribute to the infamous names are mentioned throughout the evening, and the legend that he shares the stage with, Nile entices the crowd further forward with “House of a Thousand Guitars” which catalogues some of the best artists in music history including: Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and John Lennon. To leave unimpressed from an intimate concert compiled of simple and ingenious song-writing, cataclysmic dynamism, a British icon, and a set from American punk’s unacknowledged messiah, would be sacrilegious.

Therefore, I left with one question in mind: how has Willie Nile evaded fame? To complicate this question, and add further pedigree to repertoire of his experience, Nile has supported the Who on tour. He is also still releasing new music that is worthy of stadium-tour success. In UNCUT ’s January edition, Nile’s latest album entitled The Innocent Ones (2010) received vehement praise, ‘Few, if any, rock’n’rollers are still writing the kind of stirring anthems Willie Nile comes up with’. Perhaps the adage “wrong place wrong time” is applicable to Nile’s failed attempt at superstardom. However, attempting to attain superstardom is the exact antithesis of what Nile appears to symbolise. As a track from his new record confirms, Nile does not want to be “Rich and Broken”. Instead he tours the world with “One Guitar” and one message, enjoying his infamous rapport with fans without the strains of fame or incalculable riches, both of which could be his. Nile has experienced the defects of rock-god status through the death and deconstruction of his influential friends and decided it isn’t for him. Instead, Willie Nile simply plays music and lives his dream.   


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