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Willie Nile and the gift that keeps on giving

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Call it a belated Christmas gift or just a great way to spend a Winter Thursday night, but Willie Nile and his band are back from Europe and appearing at New York City’s Highline Ballroom on December 26th. And if you’ve ever seen the 65 years young Nile on stage, it is a gift, a reminder that when done right, there’s nothing like a pure rock and roll show.

“Rock and roll at its best will fill you with faith and passion and make you feel alive,” said Nile. “I feel it.”

You can tell. At the tail-end of what’s likely one of the most memorable and successful years of his decades-long career, Nile is getting the recognition from critics he deserves on “Best of” lists for his American Ride album and accolades from everywhere else for his live gigs. And while no one deserves it more than Nile, no one is enjoying it more than the Buffalo native.

“I’m having more fun now than I ever have,” he said. “Making the records, writing the songs, playing live, and I think that just comes with experience. And for some reason I’m lucky in that the songs that I’m coming up with are as good as anything I have written. I think I’m doing my best stuff, so there’s great joy in that. It feels great, it’s very satisfying, and I make the records because I love the songs and think that there’s something there that maybe other people might like. I would write them whether I was making records or not, it’s just what I do. But I love making the records, I love playing them live, and that other people seem to respond to it and find meaning in them as well is very gratifying and meaningful to me. So it’s very rewarding, and I’m thrilled about it. It’s always a surprise and something I’m always deeply grateful for.”

You may just want to call him a late bloomer.

Saddled with the unfortunate “Next Dylan” tag when he was making his bones in the 70s, Nile – a storyteller of the highest caliber – actually walked away from the music business after releasing two albums in 1980 and 1981. He kept writing though, eventually making his return with 1991’s Places I Have Never Been, and really hitting his stride with the fearsome foursome of Streets of New York, House Of A Thousand Guitars, The Innocent Ones, and American Ride. It’s been a ride all right.

“I toured very little in the 80s,” he said. “At the very beginning of my career I toured across the US, opening up for The Who. I was blasting out of the gates and then I walked away from the business, so I didn’t tour much in the 80s. I was just writing and raising a family in Buffalo. These past four, five, six years, I’ve been playing a lot more, and never more than in the last three. I’m enjoying it, and I never burned out on the road, so it’s still fresh and alive for me. Life is still a mystery and a magical journey to me.”

And as he pointed out when I spoke to him before the release of his latest album earlier this year, he feels like he’s getting better than ever. I can’t argue, and you might want to add ‘more prolific’ as well, as he said he already has his next two albums written. Can they top American Ride?

“I totally feel that with the experience of living, the more recording I do the more I learn, and the more I write, the more I live, it seems to be showing up in the songs,” he said. “So yes, I do think I can top it. I’ve got two more written and I won’t go in the studio unless I think I’ve got something really special. I don’t make them just to make them and go out there. If they’re special, I’m in. And I’m on the train for as long as these songs keep coming to me the way they are.”

That’s a great thing to hear as we close out 2013 and head into 2014, but in the meantime, there are still live gigs to be played, beginning with the Thursday show in New York City. If you’re in the area, you should make every effort to catch him, even if only to see if everything you’ve heard about Nile’s shows is true. And I don’t want to spoil things, but they are true.

Backed by a rock solid and charismatic band consisting of bassist Johnny Pisano, guitarist Matt Hogan, and drummer Alex Alexander, the quartet has honed its craft on the road while still keeping that rock and roll edge, and Nile’s performances walk the line perfectly between being intimate and being almost Springsteen-esque in terms of feeling like an arena show or a revival when it comes to energy. If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Europe who got to see Nile for the first time this year.

“I played places in Europe I’ve never played before,” said Nile. “I was in Belfast and Dublin for the first time with my band, and people were seeing me for the first time, and seeing their response, there were people saying things like ‘it’s been 30 years and I haven’t seen something like this.’”

Even the boys from U2 welcomed Nile and company to Dublin, sending over champagne and some Guinness backstage before their gig at Whelan’s. It was a gesture that touched Nile, whose down to Earth personality and songwriting touch a chord few do these days.

“I think that I write songs that mean something to me and I think that life is real,” he said. “Each of us is living and dying and has ups and downs and everything in between, and music at its best can somehow lighten that load, make you feel better, and make some sense out of some chaos or some blues or some sadness. Like when I sing “The Crossing,” it’s about immigrants coming to this country, and people are crying in the audience. So why would you want to go to a show and you could be crying? It’s because it has meaning. I don’t leave them crying. I want people to walk out of my concerts totally elated, uplifted, saying ‘man that was fun; boy, do I feel good.’ I can’t tell you the number of people that come after me after shows and say ‘I had such a hardship, so and so passed away six months ago, I haven’t been going out, and this just made me feel so much better.’

“I think there’s something life affirming in the music that has meaning and is an example of where rock and roll can offer some redemption,” Nile continues. “Life is tough. People work their asses off, people get sick, people die, people aren’t nice to each other, people kill each other, and the world is a wild place. But it’s the planet we live on and thank God for the compassionate kindness that comes out in some people. I think there’s something life-affirming in the songs, in the music, in the attitude. It’s life-affirming for me. I wouldn’t waste my time otherwise. It fuels my fire and keeps me going on.”

In late-June and early-July, I saw Nile play twice in the space of a week. I brought my 18-year-old daughter, who likes the pop music most 18-year-old daughters like. In spite of this, she loved the show. Both times. That says something about Willie Nile and his music. He means it, and he’s as authentic as it gets. You can’t fake what he does because you’d spot it in a second. And like he said, if it’s not real for him, why waste time doing it? Life’s too short, but Nile is living every second of it to the fullest.

“While I’m alive, I want to taste it, I want to feel it, I want to feel it on my skin, I want to feel it in my heart, and any of the things I’m feeling inside, I want to get out,” he said. “I want to express myself and try to spread some love and joy and compassion, and just the simple notion of brotherhood. I still believe. I’m still a believer in the power of rock and roll and music to affect change, transform, uplift, and inspire.”

Count me among the inspired.

Willie Nile plays the Highline Ballroom on Thursday, December 26. For tickets, click here

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