Concert: Willie Nile
NEW YORK — In a consistently colorful musical career that spans nearly four decades, Willie Nile has established a reputation as a world-class rock 'n' roller, and as a singular songwriter with deep roots in rock's rich history. So it's not surprising that he'd choose to tip his hat to one of his most enduring musical inspirations with his eleventh studio album, Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, a heartfelt, personally charged set of Dylan covers that honors its subject while exemplifying the same qualities that have distinguished Nile's work since the beginning.
"These songs opened up a lot of doors for me, and for a whole generation of kids," Nile states. "Discovering Dylan's songs in the '60s was incredibly liberating; it made me realize that there were no limitations or walls that could not be scaled or knocked down. This is the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll we're talkin' about here."
Dylan's poetic genius and playful irreverence are prominent throughout Positively Bob, with Nile mining ten vintage Dylan compositions, with imaginative, uninhibited arrangements that often recast familiar songs in a fascinating new light. For example, he injects "Blowin' in the Wind" with a shot of Ramones-style adrenaline, and turns "The Times They Are A-Changin'" into an insistent rock anthem, while "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" gets a loose, upbeat rock 'n' roll treatment, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is delivered with rootsy rockabilly fervor and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" gets a down-home treatment that recalls the song's Basement Tapes origins. Meanwhile, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" retains its original apocalyptic urgency, while Nile applies a light, intimate touch to the timeless Dylan ballads "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," "I Want You," "Every Grain of Sand" and "Abandoned Love."
Nile's deep affinity for Dylan's work goes back to the 1960s, and Dylan's influence has been a constant inspiration for as long as he's been making music. But it was Nile's participation in a 75th-birthday Dylan tribute show at New York's City Winery in May 2016 that planted the seed for Positively Bob.
"What struck me was how timely so many of the songs we played that night felt," Nile explains. "These songs are still important and meaningful and still resonate in today's world, and they're a blast to play. I thought I could bring some good energy to them and thought it would be fun to rock them up a bit. It was a total labor of love. These songs are still great and need to be heard.
"I was a teenager in the '60s, into all kinds of rock 'n' roll, and I was knocked out by Bob's music," he recalls. "Nobody else was writing songs like that. They were interesting, funny, poignant, mystical, passionate, compassionate, sarcastic, idealistic, realistic, surrealistic ... There was nothing remotely like it on the radio. He was one of a kind, and singlehandedly changed the conversation completely. Dylan led me to the poetry of the Beats, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, and it was off to the races from there."
Nile says that he wasn't intimidated by the challenge of choosing an album's worth of songs from Dylan's voluminous songbook. "When I got the invitation to sing four Dylan songs at City Winery, I stayed up late one night and just looked at all the songs in his catalog. I wanted to see if there were some songs I could pull off that would be fun to play live, and I wanted to bring them to life in a way that was believable and respectful. I just went by feel and instinct. I just picked up my guitar and went song by song and knocked out the arrangements pretty quickly. I didn't want to force anything. If a song didn't come together right away, I moved on to something else."
To bring the songs to life in the studio, Nile tapped his longtime producer Stewart Lerman, as well as calling on noted artist James Maddock, who had accompanied him at the City Winery tribute, to add guitar and backing vocals on the sessions. Maddock suggested Spin Doctors member Aaron Comess, who became drummer on the project. With longtime Nile band members Matt Hogan and Johnny Pisano on board, the sessions took place at Comess' Brooklyn studio, His House - Innsbruck Studio, where Nile and company recorded all of the album's basic tracks and lead vocals in two days.
It's hard to think of many recording artists who are doing some of their best work in the fourth decade of their careers, but Willie Nile continues to seek out new creative challenges and conquer new musical territory. Along the way, he's amassed an enthusiastic international fan base that includes such admirers as Bruce Springsteen, with whom he's guested onstage on several occasions, and Pete Townshend, who personally requested him as the opening act on the Who's historic 1980 U.S. tour. The list of avowed Nile fans also includes Bono, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Adam Duritz, Little Steven and Lucinda Williams, who once remarked, "Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I'd be opening up for him instead of him for me."
The Buffalo, N.Y. native moved to Manhattan's Greenwich Village and became a popular fixture in the Village's folk clubs, while drawing equal inspiration from the emerging downtown punk scene. He won a deal with Arista Records, which released his first two albums, Willie Nile and Golden Down, to considerable acclaim in 1980 and 1981 respectively.
Despite a series of legal disputes that caused him to walk away from the music business for nearly a decade, he resumed his recording career successfully in the '90s, recording "Places I Have Never Been" for Columbia Records, before going the D.I.Y. route with such well-received indie albums as "Beautiful Wreck of the World," "Streets of New York," "House of a Thousand Guitars," "The Innocent Ones," "American Ride," "World War Willie" and the low-key piano-based departure "If I Was a River."
While he continues to compose new material, inveterate road dog Nile is looking forward to taking his Dylan material on tour.
"I've got a lot of songs written for another album, and I also have a live album in the works," he says. "I always have a great time playing concerts, whether it's in North America or Europe, and I'm really looking forward to playing the Dylan songs live. They're a joy to play and so many in the audience will be familiar with the material, so it'll be like bringing old friends to the party.
As Nile writes in Positively Bob's liner notes, "These songs meant the world to me when I was younger and they mean the world to me now. The mystic leap of faith it took to write them, and the courage it took to believe and make a stand in hopes for something better, makes my heart sing and wander now as it did when I first heard them."
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