New York city is the city everybody loves to hate. Those of who live outside of it despise those who live there because they arrogantly believe that its a Mecca for artistic talent and home to some of the most diverse and interesting creative people in North America, What really pisses us off is that of course they are right. Anybody who has spent anytime at all in New York City with their eyes and ears open will know that there is undeniably something about the energy of the town that creates the tension required to stimulate creative juices.
One only needs to look at the facilities and organizations dedicated to the arts to realize how ingrained they are into the very fabric of the city. Outside of cities in Europe I've never seen a metropolitan centre that not only celebrates the arts but the artists who create them as they do in New York. Whether a diva in the Metropolitan Opera company or a poet in the Bowery, each are given equal credence as artists. Is it any wonder that young people chasing their muse descend upon the city in the hopes that not only will they obtain recognition, but find others of like mind with whom with they can collaborate and commiserate with over failures.
So when a young Willie Nile left his home in Buffalo NY looking to set his poems and stories to music, it was only natural that he headed to New York City. It's been his home since then and in the years since his arrival he's been putting his words to music and earning the respect of his peers, if not the commercial acclaim, he deserves. He's even survived the curse of being tagged the next Bob Dylan, after Bruce Springsteen but before Steve Forbert. Although he fell through the cracks for a bit without a contract, he's now back in full swing, and in 2006 released Streets Of New York, the album he refers to as the one he's always wanted to write, a homage to the city that took him in and gave him his opportunity to shine.
To celebrate the release of the album, he and his band decided they wanted to do something special so they did a one off gig at the Mercury Lounge in the lower east side of Manhattan. It was Willie's record label, 00:02:59, that suggested they film the event, and now two years latter, Live From The Streets Of New York, the DVD, and a CD of the same name, of that concert have been released. Of the fifteen tracks on the DVD and the live CD, ten are taken from the Streets Of New York release while the other five are from various points in Willie's career.
I've known the name Willie Nile for years, but I doubt if I could have named a single song that he'd written or sung before watching the Live From The Streets Of New York DVD. Now after seeing him and his band put on one of the best and most intense rock and roll shows since I saw The Clash in 1982, I won't ever forget him or his music. Musically his material ranges from good solid rock and roll with overtures of punk, anthems that are strongly flavoured by his Irish heritage, to elegant ballads played on the piano. His lyrics range from surreal creations that he co-wrote with drummer/percussionist Frankie Lee, songs about the human condition, to songs about the state of the world.
One of the really remarkable abilities he has is to be able to take a song about a personal matter, like the end of a relationship, and give it a universal appeal as it speaks to ideas and emotions that can be applied to things happening all around us. "On Some Rainy Day" is a great example of a song like that as he asks at one point, "Will you think of me of some rainy day" which on one level could be someone asking their ex if they will spare them a thought occasionally, but also asks us, will we think of anyone aside from ourselves on occasion.
As I mentioned earlier quite a few songs on the disc are songs that he co-wrote with Frankie Lee, and one of those is also one of the more surreal offerings on the disc. "The Day I Saw Bo Diddley In Washington Square". First of all it sounds like a tune that either the Pogues or The Waterboys would have sung, as it has the feel of an Irish pub song, all slow and anthem like, but the lyrics sound like they're from a psychedelic walk in the park. How many times is the sky actually orange or do balloons appear to be growing on trees instead of leaves? It's a beautiful exercise in letting your imagination run wild, and it actually captures the rare beauty that can happen in a big city on a fall day under the right circumstances - especially if the late Bo Diddley happens to be wandering around.
Two songs that he sings back to back, "Hard Times In America" and "Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead) are very angry. Not in the sense that Willie is angry at anyone in particular, but angry at a world that can let the sort of shit happen that he's describing. The first is pretty self explanatory and even though it was written twelve years ago, it is still as depressingly applicable today as it was then. One of the fun things about it though was that half-way through it Willie's two guitar players, Andy York and Jimmy Vivino became, in their own words, "axe wielding fiends" as they enjoyed bashing leads back and forth between each other like tennis players involved in a long rally.
In the special features section of the DVD there's a short feature where Willie and the band members talk about some of the songs on the disc. "Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead) was written after the terrorist attack on the train in Spain in 2004. One of the New York papers ran a headline about cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead in reference to the fact that bodies were lying on the side of the railroad tracks in their body bags, and phones started ringing inside them as people began phoning family and friends they knew had been travelling on the train. You can hear the anguish in Willie's voice as he sings this song, a song that wonders at the horrors that mankind can keep inflicting on itself.
The band that Willie has assembled for the DVD is the band he plays with whenever the opportunity arises, but it's not that often anymore as they all have other commitments that keep them busy now. So this night was special for all of them, because it doesn't happen as often as any of them would like that they get to climb up on stage with Willie Nile. Aside from the three already mentioned, there was Rich Pagano on drums (he also mixed down the album and the DVD) and Brad Albetta on bass. One of the hardest things for a rock and roll band to accomplish is to sound loose but be incredibly tight at the same time. These guys have that chemistry, what with having a history and sharing a common focus of knowing and loving to play Willie Nile's music, all of which combined make for a great rock and roll concert.
Although, it's two songs that were the furthest removed from rock and roll on the disc that were the ones that moved me the most. "Back Home" and "Streets Of New York" both feature Willie sitting down at the piano. While the former has the band backing him up the latter is just him solo. Both songs tell you a little bit of the kind of life Willie has had, but there's no sense of self-pity or cheap sentimentality about either of these numbers as he is simply telling a story. Willie is a real troubadour in that way, as he has the ability to tell a story with a song and let you draw your own conclusions about what's going on. He can touch your heart with a song and his piano playing, but he never once tries to tell your heart how it should feel.
Both the sound and the video on this DVD are excellent and make you feel like either you're a member of the band or you're watching the show standing on stage beside which ever member of the band is the focus of attention at the moment. As far as I can tell the sound is regular stereo while the picture is definitely fullscreen. However you are so close to the action that none of that technical stuff really matters, as who cares about it when you can watch the guitar player's fingers walk the fret board and Willie's fingers caress each piano key.
Live From The Streets Of New York is one of the best concert DVDs I've ever seen. Not only does it do a great job of recording a great concert, it records a great concert by a great artist, Willie Nile.
(Originally posted August 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.