- by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date: Label:
You might not be familiar with the work of New York singer-songwriter Willie Nile (I wasn’t until recently) but you really should be. Go back to the 70’s and 80’s and you’ll find Nile immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene and the burgeoning punk scene of CBGB’s. Nile is always there, an ever-present songwriting force; one part folk troubadour, one part punk.
He’s toured with The Who and played with Richard Thompson, Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams. He hung out with Lou Reed and lived down the road from Bob Dylan. He’s a man with stories to tell and something to say. Tonight at The Brudenell Social Club, I’ll finally catch up and find out just what Willie Nile is all about.
First up we’re treated to a set from Leeds-based songwriter, Miranda Arieh. Poised to release her debut album, Ferine, Arieh is an artist on the rise. She’ll be back at The Brudenell in July to launch the album with a full band but tonight it’s just a singer and her piano.
Kaleidoscopic-pop with heart, art and creativity at its core; Arieh has an undeniably fresh and inimitable style. Opening with ‘The Order of Size’ her songs find the perfect balance between melancholy and inspiration; emotional, honest and stronger for it.
Arieh’s work as a mental health campaigner is clearly an important part of what she does, using her platform to highlight relevant issues. ‘Taking it Like a Man’ pleas for more open discussion around male mental health and the damaging effects of the man up/ keep it all inside attitude.
‘The Swimmer’ is a quiet yet passionate ballad that finds Arieh confessing, “I never wanted the easy road”. The piano and Arieh’s powerful, distinctive, voice pull the Brudenell audience right in. A stripped-back rendition of single ‘Soul Price’ reveals new layers beneath its joyous pop-heart.
There are hints of Joanna Newsom in Arieh’s idiosyncratic delivery but really this is the sound of an artist fully expressing her own, unique, voice. An impressive and intimate performance; go and see her live before the rest of the world catches on.
From the moment he steps out on stage Willie Nile is connecting with his audience. A genuine man of the people, he’s the very antithesis of the detached, aloof, ego-driven rock star. Raising his glass of wine to The Brudenell crowd, Nile tunes his guitar as bassist Johnny Pi casually puts on some deodorant. The stage is clearly something of a second home by now.
Tonight it’s just Nile on acoustic guitar and Pi on bass, ensuring the songs feel raw and immediate. The unembellished approach emphasises just how incredible these songs really are. The show actually reminds me of the times I’ve seen Julian Cope perform solo. The songs are markedly different yet both artists share that same revolutionary spirit and irrepressible sense of humour.
The duo open with the brilliant ‘Forever Wild’ (a response to Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’?), filling their performance with joyous enthusiasm and admirable energy. It’s hard to believe that Nile is actually “750 years old” (at least that’s what he tells us). ‘Run’, a Costello-meets-Springsteen in a New York alleyway kind of tune, comes next. Two songs in and they’ve already got the audience clapping along.
“All kinds of people come from who knows where” sings Nile on a passionate ‘Bleecker Street’ “all kinds of people/ who knows how much they care”. It’s a vision of America that happily seems completely at odds with Trumps reductive, right-wing rhetoric. You won’t find Nile wearing one of those ridiculous red caps.
He talks passionately about Pakistani female education activist Malala Yousafzai (shot but undeterred by the Taliban when she was only 15) before playing ‘This is Our Time’ and dedicating it to “all the women in the house”. It’s a set that seems to bring the whole room together, using the power of music and (as he sings later) “just one guitar”.
The likes of ‘Don’t’ and ‘House of a Thousand Guitars’ feel like rallying calls while a trip to the piano arguably provides tonight’s most tender moment. ‘The Crossing’ proves to be a startlingly beautiful ballad, Nile adopting an almost Tom Waits-esque timbre as he sings about immigration and “anyone crossing a bridge”.
His own songs are interspersed with a few well-chosen covers. Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35’ gets an outing (“they’ll stone you when you’re playing songs in Leeds”) as does the eternally gorgeous ‘Love Minus Zero’. Wearing his Velvet’s jacket Nile gets the whole room singing along to ‘Sweet Jane’ while an acoustic rendition of The Ramones ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ might just be the pick of the bunch.
Nile has hinted about his dislike (that’s putting it extremely mildly) for President Donald Trump so it only feels right that we’re treated to a new, unreleased song about said, orange-skinned buffoon. “How do you spell pompous ass? T.R.U.M.P” sings an energised Nile “how do you spell got no class?” You can guess the reply. A defiant two-fingered salute and a whole lot of fun too.
Before he leaves us Nile suggests we all take a bow together because “it’ll be kind of righteous”. And you know what, it kinda was. He hands his guitar pick to a teenager on the front row before heading backstage. Not bad work for a 750 year old singer-songwriter.