If Willie Nile is ever reincarnated, here's hoping he comes back as an energy drink.
If you talk to him, you'll know why. The singer/songwriter is upbeat and bubbly, puts his audience in an optimistic mood (even if it's just one lone journalist) and there's no hangover later in the day.
He's also playing at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on Saturday. Go catch the buzz.
"I'll be playing some of my favorites, like, 'Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead' and older stuff from my debut album," Nile said. "But I'm most excited about the songs I'm writing right now. I think I'm doing the best work of my life."
If that's true, Nile is walking on a very high wire, indeed.
Exploding onto the scene in 1980 with his self-titled debut, Nile has been energizing fans and critics for years. Try to imagine a one-man Clash. Mix in high-flying lyrics that seem to come from a less-politcal, more literary Woody Guthrie. Add intoxicating folk melodies, a choirboy soprano and stage antics that could intimidate Groucho Marx, and you sort of have Willie Nile.
He has more famous fans than any cultish songwriter has a right to. Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter and Graham Parker have all sung his praises over the years. Some of these folks have even inspired a song Willie wrote recently.
"There's a tune on my new album, 'The Innocent Ones,' called 'One Guitar.' I wrote it as a sort of ode to guys like Guthrie and Bono and Bruce and Joe Strummer. It's inspired by the idea that a guy with one guitar can change the world. It's already created quite a buzz. Mike Peters [of UK band The Alarm] heard it and recorded it. The idea is for there to be more cover versions of it than 'Yesterday.' And I'm planning to give the proceeds to charities like the TJ Martell Foundation and others."
Idealism in rock and roll, inspiring people to do something positive – or at least helping them transcend what they perceive to be their limitations – does seem to be on its deathbed these days. But it won't stay there for long. Not if Nile has anything to do with it.
If you're lucky enough to see him, you'll know that despite sometimes playing an acoustic guitar, Nile is no hokey folkie. He's there to blow the roof off the joint that night. Which means he's a rock 'n' roller, right down to his bones. And a principled one at that.
He credits Springsteen with infecting him with The Faith.
"It's hard to believe sometimes, that Bruce is a superstar," Nile said. "He doesn't act like one. The reason why he's stayed so big for so long is that he's a music fan. He never stops listening to new artists and it affects his growth. He's still working on getting better."
Having shared the stage with Springsteen on a number of occasions, Nile has the perfect perspective to make this observation of The Boss. And he tells captivating stories about the way the Jersey superstar has gone out of his way to shine the light on some of his favorite songwriters – such as Willie Nile.
"I'd been onstage with Bruce at benefits for [Parkinson's charity] the Light of Day Foundation," Nile said. "But one time, Bruce really blew my mind when he called me up."
Nile goes on to recall a rock moment that seems to describe Springsteen as more visionary than rocker.
"One evening I went to see Bruce play a stadium gig in my hometown of Buffalo. I took my daughter and was just there as a regular ticket holder. Somewhere in the show, Bruce came to the edge of the stage and seemed to be staring at me. Within a few seconds, my cell phone started ringing. And when I looked at it, there was a message saying, 'Come backstage. Bruce wants you to play on the encore.' How all this happened, I'll never know."
Nile did indeed go as summoned and played "Glory Days" and other tunes with Springsteen that night.
"See, that's what I'm talking about," Nile said enthusiastically. "For Bruce, being famous is sort of beside the point. He's into it for the excitement of the music and the moment. If, when I'm onstage I can do the same thing? I think I've fulfilled my rock and roll destiny."
INFO: Willie Nile will be performing at the in Scotch Plains this Saturday as part of the center's Split Level Concert Series. The show begins at 8:45 p.m. Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 the day of the show. For more information call 908-889-8800.