Live from the Streets of New York is not a comeback album. For most artists, this statement would describe the majority of the act’s releases. The history of rock is filled with bands and performers who never hit the big-time, or made it once and then faded away forever, or, more rarely, who’ve enjoyed long and sustained careers. Every so often, though, the gnashing teeth of the music industry spit someone out who possesses the will to survive, to get back up, and to try again. This is the story of Willie Nile. Actually, it’s more than just a story; it’s a trilogy!
After a great self-titled debut for Arista in 1980 and a solid follow-up with 1981’s Golden Down, Nile became ensnared in a legal morass when he switched labels to Geffen. He spent the rest of the ’80s being gradually forgotten, chronicled as a casualty of the music business. Then, in 1991, he made his first comeback, releasing Places I Have Never Been for Columbia. At that point, his sound had limited appeal in a marketplace wherein the topsoil of pre-fab pop was about to be scattered to the winds by the eruption of alternative music. Nile didn’t fit into either of these categories. He’s the purist of rock singer-songwriters, melding the voices of Bob Dylan and Joe Strummer with the Americana storytelling of Tom Petty and throwing in a bit of the city-worn vibe of Lou Reed. Despite a good album and positive reviews, Willie Nile was once again brushed aside.
In 1999, however, the fighter staggered back up off the mat with Beautiful Wreck of the World, another very good album that reached precious few listeners. Goodbye, Willie. Nice knowin’ ya. But wait, there’s more! In 2006, the slow orbit that is Willie Nile’s cycle of creativity reached the gravitational pull of planet Earth once more. Streets of New York, while holding true to Nile’s immutable aesthetic of the poetic rock balladeer, felt vibrant and fresh and frisky. Full of keen observations, gigantic hooks, and a big open heart, the album arrived at the right time. The whole post-punk revival was on its way out and “real” rock bands like The Hold Steady were ascending. Matt Cibula, in his PopMatters review, gave the album a respectable (yet slightly skeptical) 7/10. My initial evaluation was similar, but Streets of New York is a grower. It became one of my very favorites of 2006 and has shown major staying power.
That only two years have passed between Nile releases is nearly unprecedented. Granted, Live from the Streets of New York is a concert album, so its entry into Nile’s discography is perhaps a relatively minor one. That doesn’t reflect the quality of the music here, though. His backing band, The Worry Dolls, are consummate professionals with impressive résumés (John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash, Conan O’Brien – hey, it’s a good gig), but they also know how to let loose with the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. This allows for a studio-perfect (yet still punchy) rendering of the finely crafted “Asking Annie Out”, as well as a scorching reading of an older track, “Hard Times in America.”
That the performances here are universally excellent, and sometimes exceed their studio counterparts, is the good news. To nitpick a bit, Live is stacked with tracks from Street of New York. Of the 14 cuts here (not counting the short introduction), 11 come from that most recent studio release. This is reasonable, of course, since that’s the work Nile was promoting. Still, it’s a shame not to get a wider sampling from his body of great earlier works. That said, first album classic “Vagabond Moon,” Places I have Never Been‘s “Heaven Help the Lonely”, and the aforementioned “Hard Times in America” are huge treats.
For fans of Street of New York (a list that should be a mile long), there is much to love about its live companion. After only two years, the lovely and yearning “Back Home” already feels like a standard, so classically structured and smartly rendered that it breaks the constraints of its time. Likewise for “The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square”, which could be passed off as a cover by Dylan, or The Pogues, or Richard Thompson. Speaking of covers, Nile’s live take on The Clash’s version of “Police on My Back” is a scorcher. The guitars ring out with the same punk-siren vibrancy that they possessed when Strummer and his mates recorded it for 1980’s Sandinista!.
At that time, Willie Nile’s career was just getting going. Incredibly, he’s back at it again here in the late 2000s. With any luck, the trajectory of his career will become less elliptical. While we wait for Nile’s next studio release, we will happily make do with the very satisfying Live from the Streets of New York.