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CD Review: Willie Nile – Live at the Turning Point

Most acoustic albums by rock bands suck. If you can’t wait for Poison Live and Unplugged, better stop while you’re ahead. This cd, by contrast, is the rare exception. Hot on the heels of Willie Nile’s career-best 2006 album Streets of NYC, the veteran NYC rocker shares the secret to his success. It’s called kicking ass. Backed by drummer Rich Pagano and tv gabfest studio guitarist Jimmy Vivino in an upstate New York yuppie folk club, the trio sledgehammer their way through a mix of songs from Nile’s latest studio cd as well as a few choice cuts from throughout his career. Don’t let the presence of Vivino scare you off – he plays mandolin and acoustic rhythm guitar here and does so competently, even passionately. Nile somehow managed to get him into the harness without completely muzzling him, and the results are impressive.

The set opens with two cuts from Streets of NYC, Welcome To My Head and Asking Annie Out. Nile has always been a hookmeister, and stripped to the chassis, these songs remain as instantly hummable as their original versions. Then they play Nile’s classic from way back in 1981, Vagabond Moon as if it was the single they’d just released. It’s sort of Nile’s Aqualung or The Thrill Is Gone: everybody wants to hear it, he’s played it a million times but he still usually manages to fit it into the set. How he manages to keep it fresh is the operative question: maybe because it’s so damn catchy and builds to such killer crescendos.

The following cut is another early one, Les Champs Elysees, and the version on Nile’s Archive Alive album is pretty forgettable: “Anybody like to do the twist?” he asks, and it sounds rote. Not this version, with its uncommonly nice acoustic intro. After that, we get what’s surprisingly the best song on the album, the coruscating, gorgeously lyrical Irish ballad The Day I Saw Bo Diddley In Washington Square. As with Nile’s best work, it’s a sprawling, Bruegelesque tableau set in a New York now pretty much buried under suburban chain restaurants and towering Lego condominiums selling for multimillions of dollars. Nile’s boast that “everyone will say they were there” on that vivid afternoon rings defiantly true.

The band also runs through a couple of hook-driven anthems, That’s Enough For Me and On Some Rainy Day, as well as Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead), another one from Streets of NYC. That’s the one cut here that misses the pyrotechnic Andy York electric guitar work that makes the studio version so unforgettable. But it’s still a good lyric and a good song, even if it doesn’t evoke the Madrid train bombings as well. The band recasts the following tune When One Stands as more of a swinging countryish song, as opposed to the blazing reggae take they made in the studio, but it works.

There’s also a surprise, Hard Times In America, the title track from Nile’s little-noticed ep from the 90s, brilliantly recast as an ominous, skeletal delta blues as it builds into the verse. Nile virtually never plays it live: this version alone is worth the price of the album. Streets of New York, with Nile on piano is uncharacteristically quiet, with a good build to the conclusion. The album winds up with mostly covers, including a blistering, stomping version of the Dylan classic It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue: what seems to be a pretty clueless, sedate yuppie audience is suddenly adrenalized and roaring along with the band. Nile and his cohorts also tackle the Who classic Substitute as well as a Ramones song.

For devoted fans, this is a must-own. It’s also a good introduction to the artist, a suitable present for fans of rock songwriters ranging from Springsteen to Richard Thompson. Caveat: the Willie Nile catalog is highly addictive. After hearing this you will probably want the rest of his albums.

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June 4, 2007 Posted by | Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments