I had no doubt that something celestially-inspired was happening when my once-Greek-god-like hair began to move most unusually, each strand inching upward rapidly till they all pointed straight . . . straight . . . towards the stars! Yo, was anybody staring at me? I looked a mess. But at times like that, who gives a flying fig? This incredible occurrence meant only one thing: The stars had aligned themselves for me. I was in the right place at the right time. In Philadelphia. At funky, small and narrow Tin Angel, a music club where my wife Sandy and I sat 40 feet from the stage. Upon which Willie Nile and his band, only seconds into their set and ablaze from the first whack of the drum kit, were transporting me to — yeah man, as clichéd and dumb as this sounds, I’m gonna say it — rock and roll heaven. I was so jazzed I started to drop to my knees to kiss Tin Angel’s floor. Sandy held me back. “What, are you nuts!” she wisely exclaimed. “There’s a bacterial frat house party going on down there. Stay in your seat, young man.”
And I did, as Willie and his pals commandeered the stage for nearly two hours. They took no prisoners, blasting out 20 holy crap-that’s-catchy songs (17 of them fully or co-authored by Willie), not even offering up a medium-paced number until halfway through the show. What they unleashed was unadulterated rock and roll. The kind of rock that any lover of The Clash, The Pogues, The Ramones, Petty and Springsteen would go wild for. Rock propelled by Matt Hogan’s lean, soaring electric guitar and Alex Alexander’s huge drum poundings and Johnny Pisano’s electric bass lines that bobbed and bubbled. And what about Willie? Why, he led the way, packing his lead vocals with brio and strumming madly on his low-in-the-mix acoustic guitar. He showed off his ace songwriting skills, delivering righteous social anthems (such as Let’s All Come Together and One Guitar) and acutely-detailed observations about love (Beautiful You). And he owned the stage, because he’s one of those cool guys with way natural magnetism.
Man, how long had it been since I’d been rocked to the bones like this? Too long, partner, too long. And it wasn’t only the hooks and riffs and pounding drums and great songs and Willie’s lead singing that made the night special. The band possessed a secret weapon, one so astonishingly good my ears opened up like sink holes. We’re talking here about exuberant harmony vocals that deliriously dressed nearly every song’s chorus. The chorus of Forever Wild, for instance, the set’s opener. Leaning into their mics, Nile, Hogan and Pisano whooped and let loose: “Forever wild — uh-uh-uh uh-uh/uh-uh-uh uh-uh/Forever wild!” Throughout the set, like a bunch of half-drunk revelers, they sent the songs into outer space, Pisano reaching crazily-high notes almost out of the range of human hearing.
I should have kissed the floor.
In another lifetime maybe I’ll tackle writing Willie Nile’s biography. For now I’ll mention but a few things about him, starting with the obvious fact that he is one of the hordes of musicians whom the average Joe or Jen never heard of. He definitely has his fans though, quite a few, actually. But he deserves to have mucho more of them. And throughout his career, which began in the 1970s, he has been a darling of many music jounalists. They have loved his albums and his concerts. Still, that never has translated consistently into lots of gigs at good-sized venues, or into much airplay for his songs. Hell, Tin Angel can squeeze in maybe 140 bodies, and it was only half-filled when Sandy and I saw him there this month. As with much of life, I don’t get it. I mean, Willie should be a star.
Willie seems undaunted, though. He’s closing in on 70 and has been on a creative roll, churning out studio albums with little pause. His latest, World War Willie, just came out, and it’s his fifth since 2009. Willie and band played nearly all of it at Tin Angel, every song sounding fine as can be to my sink hole ears.
Flanked with cartoony murals that look like modern day caveman art, Tin Angel welcomed Willie and band in the right way. Meaning, a person with talent and good judgment was at the sound board. Isn’t often that you can make out more than 40% of the lyrics at a loud rock and roll show. The other night, the sound lady balanced everything just right and I deciphered most of the lyrics no problem. And they were cool. “Grandpa rocks, Grandpa rocks/He listens to the Stones on the waterfront docks,” Willie happily shouted on the set’s second song. And on the eighth he warned, “I’m a bad boy/I ain’t no good/When I was born they said ‘knock on wood’.” Those pithy rhymes came from songs on World War Willie whose titles are easily guessed.
Not only that, Tin Angel has the vibes and layout that full-frontal rock and roll needs in order to flower. It’s cramped. it’s sweaty, and it puts its audience in potential danger. Halfway through the show, Johnny Pisano sidled to the edge of stage left, his electric bass’s neck gleefully bopping around and sticking far out into the skinny corridor that leads to the bathrooms. A guy, fresh from relieving himself, sauntered from the loo and headed back to his seat. A collision awaited. Watch out, mate! You’re about to get whacked in the head!
I don’t think that Pisano ever saw him. But the guy nimbly ducked. And all was well.
(Click here to watch Willie and his band performing Grandpa Rocks one week before I saw him at Tin Angel)
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