In this world of cookie cutter stars and here today gone tomorrow celebrities, whose success depends as much on what's fashionable as on talent, it's harder and harder to find people of enduring talent. Pop music has always been home to the one hit wonder who climbs to the top of the charts before vanishing as quickly as they had appeared, only surviving as answers in trivia games.
There are of course exceptions to that rule, performers whose talent and skill are so overwhelming that it's impossible to ignore them. They achieve the near mythic status of superstardom, and are able to fill stadiums with over 100,000 acolytes who come so they can say "I was there". More like a revival meeting than a concert, these events are an opportunity for the faithful to have their belief affirmed and their spirit restored.
The space in between those two strata is occupied by men and women who are able to make comfortable livings playing music. Some play in anonymity working as session and studio musicians. Many performers only hire a band when they are recording an album or getting ready to tour, and it's from that pool of talented individuals they draw their musicians.
Than there are those performers who through strength of personality and distinctiveness of sound have carved out their own niche in the business. Unfortunately the very uniqueness that makes them such invaluable artists makes them a poor fit for the music industry and they end up as cult figures with small but loyal followings around the world.
One of those who is far more deserving of attention then the small amount he receives is the incomparable Willy DeVille. I first came across Willy back in the late 1970's when he was fronting Mink DeVille (what could be cooler than a Cadillac DeVille with mink fur seats) They were playing a mixture of old blues rock and Latin tinged music and were falling through the cracks in the record business even then.
Thirty years on he's still out there playing great music and in the process reminding people what passion and integrity sound like. A couple of years back he recorded a live album in Berlin with just his bass and keyboard players. The Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio In Berlin released on the Eagle-Rock label is a great example of not just Willy's talents as a songwriter, but as an interpreter of songs.
They're aren't too many people out there who are talented enough to take a song like "(There Is A Rose In) Spanish Harlem" and make it sound sincere, but Willy does. A combination of his world-weary voice and the genuine emotion he seems to be able to invest any song he sings are certainly a good part of why he is successful where others fail, but there's more to it than that. The intangible quality of having looked into the darker part of your soul and come out the other side with your spirit intact that can't be taught, only experienced, is always present when he performs.
Whatever you've heard about Willy, and there has been a lot said, that's not some sort of oblique reference to drug use or that life style. The pleasure he takes in what he does expresses a joy to be alive and a gratitude for being allowed to do what he loves that is hard to miss. To me that is indicative of someone who is completely comfortable with who they are and what they're doing, and that only comes about from some serious soul searching.
Anyway, enough of that shit, what about the music? Well its fantastic, what else would you expect. With Willy on guitar and harmonica, Dave Keyes (from his Mink DeVille line up at the time) on stand up bass, and Seth Farber on piano they burn up the stage for the bluesy/rock numbers and lay down some quiet beauty for the ballads.
There's everything on here from his collaboration with Mark Knofler, "Storybook Love" (the Academy Award nominated song from the movie Princess Bride), a scorching version of "Hound Dog", and a rocking medley of "Sea Cruise" and "Shake Rattle and Roll". It's tells you how good these guys are that they played better and hotter than any full rock and roll band then I've heard in ages.
The last eight tracks on disc two of Acoustic Trio Live In Berlin are from a Mink DeVille concert in Stockholm, featuring the rest of Willy's band – Boris Kinberg on percussion, Freddy Koella guitars and mandolin, and Yadonna & Doreen Wise getting credit for back up vocals and soul. The highlight of this set for me was finally getting to hear Willy sing Warren Zevon's "Carmelita".
If there was ever a person and a song that belonged together it's Willy and this song. From the Latino inflections, to the voice made of gravel, he makes the song come alive like no else has ever managed. But that's the beauty of Willie DeVille, he puts the song ahead of himself. It's not that he's irrelevant, it's just that he offers up his interpretations of the songs without putting his ego in the way.
Willy DeVille is a one of a kind in a world of carbon copies and that in itself would be more than enough to recommend him. But he is also one of the most honest, heartfelt interpreters of songs and gifted songwriters that I've ever heard. Listening to Willy DeVille is to be reminded of how Rock & Roll should be played, and the true meaning of the word passion.
(Originally posted August 2007)
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.