TVD Live: Willie Nile at the Hamilton Live, 8/28

Willie Nile’s pent up energy for getting back on the road was fairly palpable in his show Saturday at the Hamilton in DC.

Originally scheduled for April 2020, it had been postponed by the pandemic to summer that year, then to April this year, to finally this late summer date 16 months later. In the interim, the rocker released two strong albums of new material to play to fit along with favorites from a 40 year career.

Blending the drive and heart of the Stones with a raspy delivery of a Dylan, Nile is a master of combining the simplicity and sheer fun of Chuck Berry with the poetic insight and effective wordplay of the folk scene where he rose. With a veteran three-piece backing, his set careened from carefree, anthemic rockers to declarative stands that are durable enough to endure for future issues than the ones from which they sprang.

The title song for his new The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as its “Blood On Your Hands” rose from the pandemic’s rise and spectacular initial fumbling by the government. “The Innocent Ones,” about another humanitarian crisis, was dedicated to Afghanistan refugees. From the uprisings for racial and social justice came “The Justice Bell,” inspired by the lifelong civil rights work of Sen. John Lewis.

Nile’s long-awaited DC show came on the day of a march marking not only the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but to endorse the voting rights act that bears Lewis’ name. Many of the streets adjoining the venue were still closed off from the day’s activity.

Nile met Lewis at a birthday party for former Congressman and longtime fan Joe Crowley, who was not only in attendance at the show but, having been ousted from his Bronx district seat by AOC, available to sing on stage to no less than three songs—“The Justice Bell” as well as Nile’s hopped-up version of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and the finale of the main set, “One Guitar.” Not that Nile needs a lot of vocal help. Bassist Johnny Pisano provides strong harmonies and guitar ace Jimi K. Bones joins in from time to time as well.

Nile had a lot to celebrate Saturday; he had gotten married just four days earlier, to Cristina Arrigoni, the photographer who did the shot of street performer Johan Figueroa Gonzalez, the often-seen living sculpture in Washington Square Park for the cover of Nile’s new album. The soulful ballad “I Will Stand” that followed his announcement had the kind of sincerity perfect for a wedding day’s vow.

He had a number of songs of serious intent, such as “Across the River,” the one piano-based song, which opened his encore; or  rockers that contained underlying messages—“All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go,” he sang, because of climate change.

But on this Saturday night after a long season deprived of music, audiences best responded to the unbridled rockers, from “New York is Rockin’” (to which he necessarily added “DC is rockin’”) to the stone classic “Heaven Help the Lonely,” which turned out to be just about the oldest of his songs he’d play, 30 years ago, from his third album (though he recently played his terrific first two albums front to back to mark their anniversary; he didn’t fit anything from them in).

The covers, too, were well-received, from Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” to Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” And to mark Charlie Watts’ death that week, he ended the encores with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” an accompanying testimonial and a spirit that embodied keeping the flame going.

SETLIST
Forever Wild
Run
The Innocent Ones
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Sanctuary
Blood On Your Hands
The Justice Bell
I Will Stand
All Dressed Up and No Place to Go
Heaven Help the Lonely
The Backstreet Slide
Runnin’ Down a Dream
New York is Rockin’
House of a Thousand Guitars
Sweet Jane
Blowin’ in the Wind
One Guitar

Across the River
Give Me Tomorrow
Run Free
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

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