Sounds of the City: A homegrown rocker at the top of his game
We left off last month standing beside Bruce Springsteen and the late Clarence Clemons as they walked off Buffalo’s First Niagara Center stage in November 2009 together, arm-in-arm, for the last time on the road. When I unfroze from that magic moment, I looked back toward the stage and saw Buffalo-born and bred rock ’n’ roll hero Willie Nile, similarly stunned by the gravity of it all, only much more so as he’d just sat in—once again—with the E Street Band.
Sitting in with Bruce Springsteen is nothing new for the sixty-three-year-old Nile—he’s done it on stages as big as the recently wrecking-balled Shea—but the weight of that Buffalo show was in the air. “That was pretty deep,” Nile says of the Springsteen-Clemons stage exit, speaking by phone from New York as he booked flights for his upcoming European tour and made plans for his next trip home, which includes an evening at the Tralf on May 4. “I knew what was happening,” he continues. “As always, Bruce was acutely aware of the moment.”
Just watching it all was all Nile had in mind that night, but the Boss had other plans. “I flew in just to take my daughter to the show,” he recalls. “Bruce’s camp has always been very good to me, so I figured we’d get good seats. There was a lot of chaos beforehand, so we didn’t get to say hello before the show like we normally would. We were just sitting and enjoying it all, an incredible, magical night.
“Near the end, Bruce was over near the side of stage where I was, and I said to my daughter, ‘I think he saw me.’ Five minutes later, I get a text message, ‘Come backstage right now.’ I took a few steps down, and Bruce’s assistant is there saying, ‘C’mon, Bruce wants you to come up and sing ‘Higher and Higher.’ ” So I went backstage, got me a guitar, went out, and played. ‘Higher’—it was incredible. I’m in the middle of the stage, sharing a mic with Little Steven [Van Zandt]. It was amazing, one of those life moments you just can’t believe.”
While Nile’s friendship with Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa traces back two decades and is built on a mutual admiration of each other’s music, his destiny as a musician traces back to his roots in Kenmore and Cheektowaga and is built on the legacy of the Noonan family, his given last name. “My great uncle John Noonan started the first musicians’ union in Buffalo, 1915 I think it was,” he says. “My grandfather, Dick Noonan, played piano in a vaudeville orchestra for thirty years, as did his brother, seven nights a week. My uncles Ray and Rich were great piano players, too, they could play anything. There’s a lot of music in the family, and I carry that tradition. I never dreamed it would lead to playing Shea Stadium, Giants Stadium, the Aud, and Europe; these are high times, and I’m enjoying it immensely.”
Nile has earned his success the hard way, writing the kinds of sleeves-up, soul-borne songs that have made fans of titans of the trade like Bono and Lucinda Williams. He graduated from Bishop Newman High School and the University at Buffalo without ever writing or performing music, instead focusing on poetry before moving to New York to chase his destiny. Almost immediately after starting his music career, he was taking cues from the great curator John Hammond, who was the first producer to see what Nile could do in the studio.
Although the singer’s road to glory has faced many detours, Nile’s latest album, The Innocent Ones, is a masterpiece of hope and urgency. It has gained praise along the way from NPR (“infectious and pensive”) and BBC (“stunning”), and carries a song that has sparked a movement: “One Guitar.”
The “One Guitar” project, laid out completely at www.oneguitar.org, invites anyone and everyone to record and release their own version of the uplifting anthem, with half of the proceeds going to the TJ Martell Foundation and the other half to a charity chosen by each artist who participates in the project. Among those already onboard are established international artists such as the Alarm and Buffalo up-and-comer Steve Fleck, the sixteen-year-old frontman of Lewiston-based Brass Monkeez; Fleck’s version is included on the new and locally-produced tunes4food Feeding America benefit album.
“The song has really been resonating with people, and we want to use it to give back to good causes, whether it’s cancer research or feeding the hungry,” Nile says. “My mom used to always say that it’s better to give than receive, and I think she’s right. Whether it’s helping someone across the street or raising money for Parkinson’s research—there’s a lot of satisfaction in it.”
Seamus Gallivan, a Buffalo native and repat, is the founder of The Good Neighborhood, online with a daily dose of the greater good and on the town with a cause for every event.