I’m not quite sure why I went to tonight’s gig, especially as I’d chosen not to go to two others that I had pencilled in. Even with the vagaries of musical genres the “metal” (even of the glam sort) assigned to those two appeals to me more than the “punk/folk” (whatever that means) that I saw tonight’s headliner labelled as on at least one site. Despite the chance of a catch-up with a friend (who had a very good reason to be there) and the first support act being a local favourite, if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting much from tonight.
“Hello earlybirds,” uttered Boss Caine to a crowd that was bigger than some headliners have got recently, before starting with his current set-opener, the brilliant Ghosts And Drunks. Dan has a way of performing that suggests he neither knows nor cares how many people he is playing to but, these days, he seems to be getting much more attentive and appreciative audiences and the end of the song brought forth applause and a polite “whoo!” Despite his songs being increasingly familiar to me, I still mange to hear something new every time I hear them. Tonight it was the “boiled sweet” lyric in Dead Man’s Suit and the fact that Grievous Angel somehow seemed faster and lighter than usual. Lady MacBeth, however, was still the slower, more introspectively sombre song that I’m beginning to like more and more. Upping the tempo again, Dan dedicated Kind Of Loving to, “anyone getting married next May and who might fancy dancing.” It can’t have been a coincidence that there was just such a couple in the audience, and that they duly obliged. A small amount of echo on the vocals added something to Self Medication Blues, which led straight into Murder On My Mind, the two songs seemingly inextricably linked. A short but, as usual, entertaining set from one of York’s best songwriters.
My first thought as Nashville singer/songwriter Jefferson Grizzard and his band opened their set was that there was hints of Springsteen to the overall sound, something I put down to the keyboard-drenched background to Long Time Coming, although I couldn’t think which of The Boss’s songs it reminded me of. Whatever the next song was, it was slower and more Bluesy, the drum line was no longer pounding my chest and the vocals were a little less drowned. The keyboards, however, were still drenching the background in a pleasant way. Jefferson’s introduction to Poisoned highlighted a distinctive difference between his speaking voice and his vocals, the former being much deeper than the impassioned latter. Lorelei, about a sitcom character (I assume from The Gilmore Girls), saw Jefferson switch to acoustic guitar for a song that I instantly fell in love with. The much slower pace, wordless backing vocals, nice piano line and guitar-led instrumental section all, to me, added up to something special, although it also showed how different people see music when one person I spoke to dismissed it as “sub-par Bon Jovi”. He has, however, subsequently agreed to give it another chance. After a plea for water, quickly provided, we got the title track from Jefferson’s second album, Learning To Lie, the beginning of which saw him eschew the guitar and use almost spoken vocals before another impressive instrumental section ended with him waving his hat to cool down the guitar. There had been a nice mix of song styles, added to by a more Honky-tonk feel to the next one, even with the lead guitarist playing bottle-neck style, before the set ended with Can’t Knock ‘Em Out, a short set for somebody who had travelled so far but, for my money, another entertaining one. I was impressed enough to buy a copy of Learning To Lie and the evening was getting better as it went along.
And so, it came to the headline act and by now the crowd had swelled considerably. Again I was amazed both by how somebody I had never heard of could be such a relatively big draw and, at the same time, how Facebook “likes” are no indication of how big a crowd is going to be. Opening with the energetic, powerful and slightly anarchic This Is Our Time, Willie Nile reminded me, looks-wise at least, of a smaller version of Lou Reed. Life On Bleecker Street was more akin to fast-spoken poetry than music while the anthemic Innocent Ones had fists pumping in the audience. A throbbing bass-line from Johnny Pisano formed the backbone of Heaven Help The Lonely, a song which, musically, built to and incredibly powerful ending. So far the music had been bouncy, energetic, up-lifting but it seemed that the mood was about to change as Willie introduced Holy War, a song from his latest album which he said was “about terrorism”. Coming across as an angry poem set to music, its lyrics starkly pointing out the differences between those who commit acts of terror in the name of their god and that god itself, it still somehow managed to be whimsical in places and eventually ended with Matt Hogan’s screaming guitar section. Those screams were replaced by a scratchy sound for Grenade before “song for the future” Give Me Tomorrow, the lightest song so far emphasised how much Willie’s vocals were reminiscent of Bob Dylan, but in a way that, in my opinion, worked much better.
Moving to a set of keyboards tucked away at one side of the stage, and after a brief, slightly comical attempt to get the microphone stand to behave itself and not fall over, Willie explained that the following day was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy, a president who had engendered hope in the States and dedicated Yesterday’s Dreams to him. A beautifully simple song, it featured lovely lyrics and piano, with the rest of the band coming in in places throughout the song. There was a quaint sort of bumbling during some of his between song chats, especially during the introduction to Love Is A Train which, after a short, rambling monologue – “I hope you like this one. Hey, we’re all from New York and this is York. We’re home…” and something about somebody buying a model railway company (I can’t remember the details) – he dedicated to York’s National Railway Museum, a place he wanted to visit but didn’t have the time. Alex Alexander beat out the rhythm of a train one of his snare drums draped with a towel while the song once again built through a superb instrumental section, with Hogan once more excelling on the guitar. Despite its feel, I was somewhat surprised to realise that this was not, in fact, the set-ender. If I Ever See The Light returned to the angry feel, if only in the music and was followed by a short reminiscence of a recent book-signing where Willie saw Lou Reed for the last time before his death, with Sweet Jane following and being dedicated to his late friend. Bizarrely, despite being about a number of dead musicians (and some still living) House Of A Thousand Guitars lifted the mood again and saw the audience joining in with the lyrics and the predilection for death continued with a cover of Jim Carroll’s People Who Died. This fast and furious song, basically a list of people, friends of the singer, and how they died was followed by a short, powerful and effortless drum solo from Alexander. It was back to the anthemic with One Guitar, a song that has slight resonances with Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive, with their “cowboy” replaced by Willie’s “soldier” wielding a guitar in place of a gun. The set ended with a pseudo-encore of You Gotta Be A Buddha (In A Place Like This).
I still have no idea what “punk/folk” is (and, being honest, I can’t find the description now, although I’m convinced that I did see it). There were occasional hints of punk in the delivery of the lyrics and the anger behind the songs and there may have been hints of modern folk in some of the songs but a more accurate description would simply be “modern rock and roll”. The set had the audience dancing, singing and pumping their fists. It was energetic, the feeling was of a stadium performance somehow squeezed into a small venue and those of us who had had a bad day at work (and there were at least two of us in the audience) walked out invigorated and most definitely entertained. Personally, I left thinking that a gig I had very little expectation for had actually been one of the best of the year, if not one of the best I had ever been to. Willie came out to sign CDs after the gig and I mentioned to him how his performance had blown me away. To give him his due, he was genuinely thankful for my comments. Hopefully, he will return to York. I know that, unless I have a very good reason, I’ll be there when if does.