With the energy, passion and fun put into their self-titled debut album The Little Willies could have easily chosen to call themselves The Big Willies. Names aside, this jamming five-piece band blends barrel house rhythm and blues with honky tonk country, reminding us of a time thought long past. The band, Lee Alexander (bass) Jim Campilongo (electric guitar) Norah Jones (piano, vocals) Richard Julian (guitar, vocals) Dan Rieser (drums), and their name conjure up images of backwoods shacks and hole-in-the-wall juke joints packed with all kinds of cats having a good time late into the night. And that’s just what this band of musician friends from New York does: have a good time.
The band kicks off the disk with a classic of western swing “Roly Poly.” The band shows its ability to jump quickly. From the opening bass/drum thump and guitar picking you can feel where these guys are going and where they’re coming from. Twenty-five seconds into the song and you’re jumping when Miss Jones flies to the front, tickling the ivories like Pete Johnson’s granddaughter instead of Ravi Shankar’s. Campilongo gives us just a taste of his picking prowess right before Jones and Julian come crashing in with hopping-mad vocals. Reenter Campilongo and more cooking guitar work, again followed by Jones who is simply on fire on this non-stop jump number, but not to be forgotten, the rhythm section comes back up front to close this solid sender. Check out Alexander’s bass run at the end, dueling with the piano before he thunders the track to a close.
The Little Willies keep their momentum going into the rolling “I’ll Never Get Out.” With Julian’s fine vocals and Jones’ backing you almost forget that this brother’s world is in a spin. Campilongo and Rieser really show us what they’ve got here; Campilongo is a gifted guitar slinger who can handle blues guitar like he was born and raised on Chicago’s south side.
After letting us know how hard they can jump and swing, The Willies let us rest a little but still leave us breathless with a wonderful reworking of the Lieber and Stoller classic “Love Me,” made popular by Elvis Presley. Yet here with Norah doing lead vocals and Richard supporting, we’re reminded, whether intentional or not, of the original R&B version by Willie and Ruth. I dig this track because The Little Willies blend both versions of this song perfectly, combining the melodic backing vocals from Presley’s version combined with strong R&B guitar work.
“It’s Not You It’s Me” is a Julian original that’s steeped heavily in the honky tonk, hardwood floor tradition. He displays his talents as a songwriter, a talent we’ll see from other Willies a little further along on this disk. This slow yet lively number is set ablaze by the excellent musicianship of this band working together. And again Norah Jones’ vocals just knock me out.
With the next track we jump once again, this time with the cool wit of a Kris Kristofferson tune “Best Of All Possible Worlds.” This time our guitar hero picks us into a frenzied otherworld. Campilongo’s super-charged solos bring to mind the work of rockabilly guitar legend Paul Burleson, rocking and jumping, yet controlled and not over the top. Alexander’s bass work is outstanding here as well as is Reiser’s drumming. The backbone of this band shows that they have mastered that steady-as-a-driving-train rhythm.
Julian lets us hear his passionate baritone vocals on Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall.” Another excellent showcase of this band’s talents, and I can’t stress the fact enough that these cats are good. In “Roll On” we get another original tune, this one from bass man Alexander. Let me say this here, until this album I’ve never paid much attention to Norah Jones, but with this track especially, Miss Jones officially has a new fan. Her passion-filled, heartfelt delivery makes this track one of the album’s strongest songs.
The Willies do two very good Willie Nelson covers, perhaps a clue to the origins of the band’s name. With “Gotta Get Drunk” Jones lets us see a playful side of her vocals, and you can’t help smiling at her delivery and banter, not to mention that wonderful howl. “There’s more old drunks than there are good doctors/So Jim take another round,” which he does happily, making another powerful guitar run. The second Nelson number, “Nightlife,” is a solid country blues once more led by Jones’ vocals and skill with the 88’s.
“Streets of Baltimore” is another song that belongs on this album. Its pure country sound and sorrowful lyrics are another perfect fit for Julian’s vocals. He makes you feel for this fellow who tries to make his lady happy even though he’s not so enthused and winds up losing her to those darn streets of Baltimore. “Tennessee Stud” is a fun western story song, reminiscent of classics by Marty Robbins, that the band romps through with ease, highlighting their ability to move smoothly from track to track. This tune stands out for its rolling piano and out-of-sight guitar work; its infectious thump and shuffle beat make it a solid country rocker.
The Little Willies debut rounds up with a couple of originals: the slow ballad “Easy As The Rain” and the humorous “Lou Reed,” which should be noted is the band’s longest number, soaring high at a whopping 4:14. That says a little something right there. “Easy As The Rain,” penned by Julian and Campilongo, is a beautiful love song that spotlights the chemistry of Jones and Julian’s vocals. This sweet ballad is easy on the ears and tugs on heartstrings without being overly sentimental or sappy. The closing track is the odd “Lou Reed,” a very playful little ditty that has Julian giving his best impression of the fellow New Yorker and rock pioneer; what a wonderful way to end their first album. On their final number, we get a chance to hear the entire band join in on vocals and have a blast together, solidifying their “live” sound.
The Little Willies debut album is a joyous expression of five talented musicians coming together to have a good time making music the way music should be made. Simple and passionate without being overdone or pretentious this band is tight and yet maintains a loose, live sound that keeps this album moving right along. The entire band is solid from the backbone of Lee Alexander and the bottom of Dan Rieser to the piano/vocal skills of Norah Jones and Richard Julian’s singing/ songwriting weaved all together by Campilongo. This New York City unit is purely masterful at what they do. They deliver on that big sound and keep us longing to hear more from them in the future. One can only hope that it’s the near future and a venue close to home because with every spin this disk just keeps getting better and better.
Here’s to the Little Willies and their big sound so let’s all “take another round.”
And for those interested in originality and a strong country sound I recommend looking for Jesse Dayton’s Tall Texas Tales; Jesse has more of a country feel but that same passion for what he does.
Review by Fantasma el Rey