On Saturday February 16 2019 the legendary Willie Nile played an acoustic concert in Kingston Ontario. Accompanied only by his bass player, Johnny Pisano, Willy ran through an hour and half long set featuring songs from across the arc of his career.
You form an impression of a musician or a band by listening to their recordings over the years, but seeing them live is another matter. Sometimes you discover a performer isn’t quite as interesting as you thought they were and you realize you’re counting the minutes until the show is over.
With Nile the opposite is true. Listening to his records only gives you an inkling of the man’s energy when he’s on stage. Even video doesn’t do anything to capture what he brings to a live performance. I’ve seen full bands put on a less entertaining and enthusiastic show than Nile and Pisano did on this night.
Perhaps they were helped by being in the intimate surroundings of a club, but I don’t think the venue or its size would have made much of a difference in the long run. Nile is a bundle of controlled energy which he somehow or other manages to channel into his performance.
It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing his anthemic “One Guitar” or his beautiful ballad about immigrants, “The Crossing”, Nile puts every ounce of himself into the music. Maybe it’s because he writes about what he sees and what he cares about that allows him to put so much into each piece, but I also think he could sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and enthral an audience.
Some performers just have that amazing mixture of talent and charisma that makes them a joy and a wonder to watch. However, there’s also that extra ingredient that some forget about, the desire to do the work necessary; not taking anything for granted and always pushing out all the stops. Nile is the perfect example of an performer who brings all of that and more to a live performance.
Nile has been at this game for a long time and walked away from the music industry in disgust for a while. Watching him on stage Saturday night was to be reminded of both the power of great popular music and how if you’re strong enough and determined enough, you can make the music you want on your own terms.
With only a bass player and his acoustic guitar (and a couple songs on piano) Willie Nile put on a show few people or bands could have matched. In terms of energy, quality and quantity I’ve not seen a live show this good in decades. If you have the chance, anytime anywhere, go see Willie Nile. You won’t regret it.