I have seen Willie Nile and his amazing band more than any other artist. They have all become friends over the years and even played my wedding. So, even though I have done multiple interviews with Willie, I’ve never reviewed a show because it would be tough to remain impartial. All that being said, Willie Nile and his band, Johnny Pisano on bass, Jon Weber on drums, and Jimi K Bones on guitar, are one of the best live bands this side of E Street and proved it once again on a warm October night in Fairfield, CT.
The evening began with a solo acoustic set by Nile’s longtime friend, the immensely talented James Maddock. British-born but quintessentially New York, Maddock was supporting his newest record Night Work. Maddock’s gravelly voice pairs perfectly with his acoustic guitar playing. His songwriting boasts the rare quality of telling a specific story yet still allowing the listener to find their own experiences in his words. Nile refers to Maddock as perhaps the best songwriter in New York, and he isn’t wrong.
Willie Nile’s career began in the late 70s in Greenwich Village. It was there that the New York Times music critic Robert Palmer saw him and wrote a glowing review that led to his record deal with Arista Records. While touring for his debut in 1980, Nile was asked to open shows for The Who. Despite support from artists like The Who, Bruce Springsteen, and U2, Nile never quite saw the success his music warranted. That being said, all these years later he still records (14 studio records to date) and plays every show as if it’s the most important one of his career.
Nile mentioned throughout the night that he is putting together a “best of” compilation, perhaps it’s that examination of his career that led to an entertaining set that touched on 8 of his records and featured some fairly rarely played songs, such as his first single “Vagabond Moon” and the hard rock of the title cut to his second record Golden Down.
Nile gives credit to his band repeatedly throughout the night, and for good reason. Long-time bassist Johnny Pisano is simply one the best in the business. The added dimension of his vocals on tracks like “Run Free” bolsters an already formidable sound. Drummer Weber is as rock solid as they come, while guitarist Bones plays with understated brilliance and provided one of the night’s highlights with his solo in the gorgeous “Across The River”.
In addition to being a great performer, Nile is a master storyteller. This night, we heard stories about working with Eric Bazilian of The Hooters on the track “God Laughs”, a deserted Manhatten on a Friday night during the pandemic lockdown leading to “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, channeling Hank Williams for “If I Ever See The Light”, and Freddie Mercury catching a show at The Roxy. Nile, who just celebrated his 75th birthday this past June, also made a call from the stage to his soon-to-be 106-year-old father in Buffalo, just so the crowd could say hello.
A highlight of any Wilie Nile show is when he sits at the piano. In the past, he has included a few solo piano songs, this time he kept his band on stage as they joined in for “Sunrise in New York City” and “Across The River”. The night came to an end with Maddock joining the band for “One Guitar” and a cover of “A Hard Day’s Night”.
Willie Nile is a self-professed “true believer” in the spirit of the human race. His songs radiate a positivity that can make the most jaded among us have hope for the future. Seeing Willie Nile live will not only renew your faith in the fact that rock n’ roll can change the world, but it will renew your faith in the human race. It’s impossible to walk out of a Willie Nile show without a smile on your face.