About 10 years ago, BBC disc jockey Spencer Leigh reviewed a show by my old band, the Badge, and wondered how we were able to write songs that matched the work of Rubber Soul-era Lennon & McCartney when McCartney couldn’t seem to muster the same magic.
It was a humbling comment, to say the least. We never thought of ourselves in that league, and to see it in print from a DJ we liked and respected made it all the more surreal.
So when I say that Willie Nile’s new American Ride reclaims that “new Dylan” mantel he was saddled with back around the time of his infamous self-titled debut (which is conveniently being reissued by Sony Legacy this month), I’m sure somewhere down in Greenwich Village Nile will bristle.
But American Ride is just that good. It’s full of confident songwriting and performances that come from talent and experience. In fact, there isn’t a track you’ll likely skip among the 12 gems on American Ride.
Of course, sobriquets aside, Nile has never really sounded like Dylan, and, while the influence is felt, he doesn’t here. Though Nile is often compared to Bruce Springsteen, and it’s perhaps a more apt comparison than Dylan, the songs that make up American Ride are better than anything Springsteen has released since the 1970s. Like Paul Weller or Alejandro Escovedo, Nile is another of the punk-era artists who is offering his best work right now. And like Weller and Escovedo, Nile’s recent albums (Streets of New York, House of A Thousand Guitars, The Innocent Ones and now American Ride) are mostly as good as, if not better than, anything he’s ever done.
Much of it, of course, is down to the songwriting. But Nile also has surrounded himself with a fantastic band, and the energy fairly drips from the speakers.
Alex Alexander (drums, percussion), Johnny Pisano (bass, vocals) and Matt Hogan (guitar) comprise Nile’s current live band, and they are the core to American Ride that makes things really tick throughout. Aided by Steuart Smith on guitars, banjo and harmonium, the band gives life to Nile’s poetry and mixes things up stylistically just enough to keep things interesting without straying too far afield from what is a fantastic formula.
“The camaraderie amongst musicians when it’s really good is really special,” Nile recently told me. American Ride is proof of that.
“I know we have something special to give,” Nile went on. “I’ve played all over Europe recently with Alex and Johnny and Matt, and those audiences are tough, but once you win them over they’re really with you, and that’s been my experience lately playing shows over there with these guys. If you come to our shows and you’re not a fan yet, man you will be when you leave.”
Nile has been everywhere in the States lately, too, playing in-stores and libraries and tearing up the Highline here in New York City last night at the launch for American Ride. By all means catch him. It’s a live show that’s not to be missed. But be sure to pick up American Ride first. You’ll feel left out if you’re not part of the club that makes up Nile’s rabid audience and you’ll be missing one of the true classics of 2013.
"This Is Our Time"
"Life on Bleecker Street"
"If I Ever See the Light"
Jeff Slate is a NYC-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He founded and fronted the band the Badge for 15 years beginning in 1997 and has worked with Pete Townshend, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Steve Holley, Laurence Juber and countless others. He has interviewed and written about everyone from the Beatles and Kiss to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock and roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles. For more information, visit jeffslate.net.