Long Journeyman

Willie Nile, Club Passim, June 22, 2007
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  June 25, 2007
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STREETS OF NEW YORK: Willie Nile walks away from the major-label world.

Willie Nile may not be a household name, even among serious musos. The diminutive folk-rocker was greeted as something akin to a “new Dylan” when he made his debut, back in 1980, only to toil in relative obscurity for years, thanks in part to legal problems and label problems. But consider a short list of well-known artists who’ve sung the praises of the NYC singer-songwriter: Lou Reed, Bono, Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, and Graham Parker. Bruce Springsteen invited Nile to join him on stage at Shea Stadium for a half-hour of encores, and just a few years ago, Ringo Starr brought Nile on tour as his opening act and then, on the tour’s final night, invited him back on stage for “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

Having left the major-label world behind, Nile released Streets of New York a little over a year ago on the indie 00:02:59. His appearance at Club Passim last Friday was his first local solo show in 15 years, and if he didn’t quite fill the cozy room with people, he filled it with spirit. Optimism in the face of hardship coursed through the nearly two-hour set. He covered Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” He channeled Bob Marley in his own reggae song “When One Stands.” He name-checked Jean-Paul Sartre in “Les Champs Élysées” and Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson in “House of 1000 Guitars,” a rock-heaven fantasy and the title track of a planned album.

Like Warren Zevon, Nile is a master of ups, downs, and turn-arounds. He played acoustic guitar and piano; he was joined by his singing-songwriting partner Frankie Lee on snare drum. “Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets of the Dead)” conjured the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid, and he did three tunes from an upcoming children’s album he’s contributing to. At one point, he exhaled and mused about his “long journey”; then he added that this was “a beginning” as well. That might sound like mere talk, but Nile’s never been one to use words lightly.

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