There are few musicians in this world that are as intent on giving their audience everything they’ve got every single time they go out on that stage as Willie Nile. There are many more that play by rote, doing the same set lists over and over and not seeming to take any joy in the fact that they are living the dream of so many in being blessed enough to actually make a living as a musician. Although Willie Nile has been in the industry for 40 plus years, he continues to play every show as if he is having the time of his life and makes damn well certain that the audience is having the just as much fun as he is. If you aren’t smiling and clapping and singing along at a Willie Nile show, you may as well just go home and stay there. With Nile, there is just no way to avoid a good time.
I’ve seen Willie countless times and I always feel like I’ve been invited to the best party in town. A secret one that not everyone knows about but should. He never lets his audience down. Willie’s show at Cafe Nine in New Haven was different from the other shows I’ve been to. It was just Willie and his band-mate, bassist Johnny Pisano, and it struck me that the show may be more subdued and have less energy than what I was used to. I could not have been more wrong. The duo rocked the house down, solidifying the fact the Nile (as well as Pisano) is one of the greatest performers in the industry. The show was heavy on songs from his newest release Positively Bob : Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, but also included many of the tremendous gems Willie has created over the years. I brought a friend that had never seen Nile play live before and he knew immediately that Willie is a one of a kind act that you need to see at least once or twice in your lifetime if you really do love rock n roll.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Willie before the show to discuss his new release, touring and where he gets his inspiration.
Crisis: What inspired the Positively Bob album?
Willie: About a year ago they were doing a celebration of Bob’s 75th birthday at City Winery in Manhattan. I got a phone call asking if I’d come and sing 4 songs and close the show and I thought, Let me think about that for a bit. My feeling was that If I could bring something to the songs and have fun with whatever it is I was playing, it could be a lot of fun. I looked some albums over and I found songs right away that I thought would be fun to play, Hard Rains Are Gonna Fall, Rainy Day Women, Blowin’ In The Wind. As I was looking them over I realized how current and how relevent these songs still are today. It was so much fun doing that gig, playing those 4 songs and listening to all of the other great Bob songs played that night I thought, man, I think I could make a really joyful record. And a lot of these songs, you don’t hear them anymore. Love Minus Zero/No Limits, is one of the best love songs ever, and you don’t hear it anymore. So I thought I’d put some energy into this and really have some fun. Pretty much took us only two days. We knocked it put real quick.
Crisis: I know Bob is one of your inspirations and someone you really admire, and I have to be completely honest with you. Dylan is a genius and his songwriting is beyond compare, so I wondered if I’d like this record. The minute I gave it a listen, I was so taken aback. Some of these songs sounded even better to me through your interpretation of them. You put your own spin on them while still making it obvious that you were respecting the master.
Willie: We had so much fun doing this record. These songs are all masterpieces. I went into the studio and it fell together fast. When you have great songs and great people going in to create this music, and you do it with reverence and respect and when you pay homage to the artist, I guess it really all comes together. One of the best parts is that my grandchildren now know who Bob Dylan is. That’s just so awesome. I have a videotape of one of my granddaughters in the back seat of the car and she is belting out Hard Rains Are Gonna Fall, at the top of her lungs, she’s two! That makes it all worth it right there.
Crisis: Have you heard any feedback from Bob?
Willie: Well, Bob’s facebook page put a beautiful blast out about the record, which is awesome. I sent it to Bob, through his office with a note, with love and I think at this point Bob has earned the right to remain silent about things. His son Jacob is a buddy of mine. They are great songs and its a joy to sing them. I’m just lucky to be able to do it.
Crisis: These songs are so incredibly relevent, even today, It’s so rare to have a song span decades and remain as timely and true today as they were when they first came out. We are in some crazy political times and Bob has always been very outspoken politically. Where do you stand on the current madness in the world and do you think music should play a role?
Willie: I think music should be a part of our lives no matter what. There is a lot of tension and stress today and injustice. It’s absurd and should be better than it is. Whether or not mankind learns from history, it hasn’t yet. So I just wanted to put these out into the ether, very mindful of the fact the world is in such chaotic shape, It’s not all bad, there are many places full of love and kindness and goodness, but the refugee crisis, the nuclear bullshit between Trump and North Korea’s leader. It’s like really? Are you both ten years old? It’s a pissing match and as human race we can do better. I grew up when Kennedy was president and he taught us that compassion and doing for others meant something. I believe in that. I believe in compassion and I believe in people. Most people are truly good, but the bad guys get a lot of attention. I think we need to do our best, treat each other with kindness, and for me, put songs out that I believe in.These Dylan songs, they speak to all of this. I sing music that I care about and means something to me. I think music can force and enable change to happen, not always, but there is certainly no harm in trying.
Crisis: Everyone I’ve played this new album for has loved it. It was me listening to Dylan in a fresh new way and it made me really sit back and listen to how incredible these songs truly are. Are you happy with how it turned out? It was obvious how respectful you were to the artist and how much his music meant to you.
Willie: The album is about him. It’s about his songs. But I thought we could bring some good energy to it. We did, and I think it’s clear that we love the music and his great, great songs. All the vocals on it, 10 songs were done with no overdubs in just two or three takes. It was just my guitar and singing, it’s all live, and that wasn’t planned. I’m not full of myself and I approached this album in a way that I think was respectful of the genius of Bob. It was so much fun, a real joy to make. My heart was really in it.
Crisis: I’ve seen you play live countless times and your live shows are just legendary. I’ve never seen you play as a duo. Should I expect the energy levels to be different?
Willie: Oh no. The energy will be there. Johnny Pisano is a great artist, he plays the bass and sings. We have a ball playing. It’s not as loud, but you can hear every word. I can tell more stories. It’s never about volume, it’s about character and the songs. Sometimes I think a duo can be even better than a night with the full band.
Crisis: I take anybody that will listen to see you play live. In fact, I’ve got someone who’s never seen you live before here with me tonight. How do you keep playing with such energy without it getting stale? I’ve never once seen you put on a mediocre show.
Willie: When I play I will not walk out on stage, even if I’m sick, unless I am going to try to make it special for the audience. I can tell in two seconds when I’m at a live show if the band is phoning it in, and I just never want to do that. I’m having a ball. If it ever stops meaning everything to me, that’s when I’ll stop.
Crisis: How many days a year do you tour?
Willie: I really don’t know, I guess I’ve stopped counting. I think probably about a hundred shows or so a year. And we play every kind of place. We are playing Yankee stadium on September first. A Red Sox/ Yankees game. Take that Babe Ruth! It’s for Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which is this great show on Sirius radio. We will be singing Blowin’ In The Wind at Yankee stadium. That’s pretty cool. From stadiums, to dive bars, bring it on. We play them all the same. For me and Johnny, it’s always about the songs.
Crisis: What kind of legacy to you want to leave your Grandchildren?
Willie: That’s a great question. I’ve got four of them now. I guess I just want them to know that they are loved by their grandparents and parents. They know I’m not a normal grandfather. I want them to know that it’s okay to be a little different. To think outside the box. And that they really can realize their dreams. And now they know Bob Dylan. It doesn’t get any better than that.