“I didn’t realize I have so many songs,” Willie Nile told the audience at The Hamilton Live during his recent appearance there. “And some of ’em don’t suck.”
Both statements are very much true: As the tagline on his merch reads, Willie has been making New York rock ‘n’ roll since 1980, when he released his self-titled debut album. And his songs certainly don’t suck: He has earned acclaim from critics and is widely admired by his fellow artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and The Who.
Music is in Willie’s blood, albeit not in the same sense as hemoglobin. His grandfather ran an orchestra in Buffalo, where Nile was born and raised, and he played piano with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Eddie Cantor; his uncles were also musicians. One of eight children in an Irish Catholic family, he began playing piano when he was eight and took classical music lessons through his teenage years, when he began writing his own songs.
While studying philosophy at the University of Buffalo, Nile made trips to New York City during the summers to see shows at clubs like Folk City and the Gaslight. After graduating, he moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village to pursue music professionally. At this point, he encountered the first major setback of his career, contracting pneumonia during his first winter in the city. His illness put things on hold for the better party of a year, during which he continued to write songs.
After recovering, Nile established a residency at Kenny’s Castaways, a club in the village, where he drew ever-growing crowds and the attention of record labels. He chose to sign with Arista, who released his first two albums. After the second album, 1981’s Golden Down, Nile became embroiled in a legal dispute with Arista as he sought to be released from his contract that put a hold on his performing and recording career for several years. When I talked to Willie a couple years ago, he reflected that it probably wasn’t wise for him to walk away after getting the kind of strong critical reviews he’d received. I can relate, having made the now inexplicable choice to walk away from a scholarship at the University of Texas, a top-15 law school. It seems terribly unfair that we should be forced to live with the clear and obvious consequences of our poor decisions.
The next several years, Willie told me, were difficult. He continued to write, and he had a publishing deal, but he had a family, and he struggled to make ends meet. He didn’t resurface until 1987, when he played a show in Norway with folksinger Eric Andersen. A videotape of this performance made its way to the executives at Columbia Records, who signed him to a record deal. It was not, however, until 1991 that Nile’s next record, Places I Have Never Been, was released. While critics hailed it as his strongest work to date, it didn’t meet Columbia’s sales goals, and he was dropped from the label.
Stream Places I Have Never Been by Willie Nile on Spotify:
The indepent label Polaris released a four track EP, Hard Times In America, but Willie’s next full length album, Beautiful Wreck of the World, didn’t appear until 1999. In the intervening years, he continued to tour Europe and the East Coast. In 2006, he released what has become his most beloved work, Streets of New York. This ushered in a career renaissance for Nile, and, since releasing the album, his output has become much more frequent; between 2009 and 2021, he put out 10 LPs.
On Jan. 27 at The Hamilton Live, Willie’s concert was a career retrospective, and the set moved, for the most part, chronologically through Willie’s material, beginning with “Vagabond Moon,” from his debut album. For the next song, “It’s All Over,” Nile superfan and former Congressman Joe Crowley came up to sing with the band. After playing it, Willie said, “There are many people in this room I’ll be friends with for life.”
From there, Willie and his band moved onto songs from his second record, Golden Down, beginning with “Poor Boy.” Introducing the album’s title cut, he told a story about how, the night he was to record it, he got the news that John Lennon had been shot. Nile knew Lennon, and the Beatle was supposed to drop by.
Next up was the eponymous track from Places I Have Never Been. Willie explained how “Hard Times In America” was inspired by a trip to Philadelphia in the winter of 1991 and seeing people living in boxes. At this point, Willie deviated from the timeline structure of the show, jumping back to his first album to play “Across the River.”
While Streets of New York celebrates Nile’s chosen hometown, a few of the tracks tackle other subjects. “Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets of the Dead),” as Willie explained, is about the 2004 Madrid train bombings, but it connects with the album’s focus on New York. “I live about a mile from the World Trade Center,” he told the audience. When he was touring Spain after the horrific terrorist attacks there, people kept asking about it and expressing their concern. On March 11, 2004, three days before Spanish general elections, a series of coordinated, nearly simultaneous bombings killed 193 people and injured more than 2,000. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of Spain and the deadliest in Europe since 1988. Following the attacks, relatives of people who had been on the train were frantically calling their loved ones; a newspaper article Willie read talked about how responders were freaked out by the ringing of the victims’ cell phones.
Stream “Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets of the Dead)” by Willie Nile on YouTube:
The show jumped back in time for the next song, “You Gotta Be A Buddha In A Place Like This,” which appears on Beautiful Wreck on the World. Introducing “Streets of New York,” Willie told the audience, “New York City’s still teaching me things. I’m a slow learner.” Willie started off the song playing solo on piano, and band joined in.
“I believe in this country,” Willie said before the next song, “American Ride,” about a trip across the country. Willie is an idealist and an optimist, and these themes pervade his work. “One Guitar,” which he played later in the set, celebrates the power of music to move people to work for social change. “Children of Paradise,” inspired by a 1946 French art film — supposedly, he said, Bob Dylan’s favorite — is about “all of us.”
While plenty of Nile’s material is political, he also has a number of songs that just celebrate the power of rock ‘n’ roll, like “Forever Wild,” “Run Free,” and “The House of A Thousand Guitars.” As the set was winding down, he mentioned that, in December, he’ll be hosting a five-day cruise; music cruises seem to be all the rage these days. The set wrapped up with “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” which was inspired by Nile’s experiences in New York City during the Covid lockdown, “Heaven Help The Lonely,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
Before Nile and his band took the stage, DC singer-songwriter Laura Tsaggaris played an opening set. “Traffic Stops,” she said was written “about my phone, but really about my wife.” She described “Seized” as “another love song. You love someone, and they do these that kind of annoy you, but if you change those things they wouldn’t be the same person.” Laura then dropped the punchline: “They’d be better!”
Stream Live at The Atlas by Laura Tsaggaris on Spotify:
Her set also included “I Am Not In Control, “We Belong,” “Dig,” which she dedicated to Christie, “Hurricane,” and a cover of “Can’t Let Go,” which was made famous by Lucinda Williams, though it was actually written by Randy Weeks. Laura mentioned she got to meet Lucinda at The Birchmere; Williams’s guitarist, Doug Pettibone, played on Laura’s album.
This was a night of first-class rock ‘n’ roll, and it showed how Willie Nile has been consistently putting out great music for as long as I’ve been alive. Every song he played was terrific and, even with a two-hour set, he didn’t hit on all of his best material. If you haven’t checked out his work yet, I envy you getting the chance to hear it for the first time.
Here are a few photos of Laura Tsaggaris opening the show at The Hamilton Live on Jan. 27, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.
And here are photos of Willie Nile headlining The Hamilton Live on Jan. 27, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.