Friday, December 2, 2011

The Little Willies @ 3rd and Lindsley (Concert Review)

Wednesday night, Nashville got served a strong double shot of twang and teardrops with back to back sets from the coolest and most talented cover band on the planet, The Little Willies. If that name's not ringing a bell, there's still a good chance you're familiar with at least a band member or two. Fronted by jazz piano maestro Norah Jones and songwriting savant Richard Julian, The Little Willies mix together Texas charm and New York cool as they expertly rip through classic country songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Rounded out by Jim Campilongo on electric guitar, Lee Alexander on bass and Dan Reiser on drums, they sounded completely at home among the clinking bottles and buzzing neon of the newly renovated confines of 3rd and Lindsley. It didn't matter if they were singing a stomper, a weeper or an inbetweener, The Little Willies played with a skill and an enthusiasm that had the crowd hanging on every note. It's one thing to have at least one band member that's really good at what they do, but it's something else entirely to have each member know exactly what to play and to also know how to leave space. In fact, that's one of the biggest differentiators about The Little Willies, their ability to not only play well, but play well with each other. Chiming acoustic strums, tinkling piano keys, fiery guitar solos, resonating bass lines and cracking snare drums weave in and out of each other's grooves to create a uniquely uncluttered sound that is both familiar and fresh at the same time. Each song won over the ears and hearts of the audience and between songs, Richard did a great job of continually flirting with the crowd by telling us all the different ways that Nashville was different than New York. Nashville crowds can be notoriously hard to please, but it was easy to see that The Little Willies had no problem strumming the hearts strings with a slew of amazing covers and a handful of chameleoned originals.

The Little Willies have their second album, For The Good Times, coming out in January and they sprinkled each set with some of the upcoming tracks. They bookended their first set with a harmony-filled take on Ralph Stanley's "I Worship You" and a raucous romp through Lefty Frizzell's "If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time." Norah perfectly channeled Loretta Lynn's attitude for "Fist City" and the honky tonk shuffle created by Dan and Lee for Scotty Wiseman's "Remember Me" propelled the song nicely. They even played songs from their self -titled first album with the same intensity. Richard's quiet nod to Townes Van Zandt's "No Place To Fall" and Jim's nimble-fingered solo in Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Stud" were equally goose bump inducing. The first set also included what Norah joked was "The Johnny Cash Suite" of "Delia's Gone" and "Wide Open Road," as well as one of my personal Little Willies favorites, Kris Kristofferson's "Best of All Possible Worlds."

Without taking anything away from the excellent first set... man, did the second set contain some show stoppers! They opened with a 1-2 punch of some fantastic instrumental interplay between Norah and Jim for Fred Rose's "Roly Poly," followed by Richard's swagger-fueled vocals and Dan's boom-bap drums for Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Tipping their collective hat to their namesake, they played three Willie Nelson songs in the second set; a tender "Permanently Lonely," a bass-thumping "Gotta Get Drunk" and a set closing "Night Life." Speaking of Willie, they brought a special guest out during the second set as well. Willie's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael joined them for "Lovesick Blues" and "Streets of Baltimore" and he sounded amazing. Other second set highlights included the hilarious original "Milking Bull" and another new track from For The Good Times, Cal Martin's "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves." Plus, Norah straight brought the house down with a gorgeously emotional take on Dolly Parton's "Jolene." As an encore, they came back out and closed out the night with their clever, woozy original "Lou Reed." You know, just your typical jaunty bar song about the lead singer of The Velvet Underground going out for a night of cowtipping. Audience participation was at an all-time high during this number and the closing refrain of "cow tipping" kept getting louder and louder. No one wanted the band to stop but they had just given us 26 songs of non-stop, incredible musicianship and fun, so it was time to call it a night. Fast or slow, heartfelt or heartbreak, raise a glass or tear in my beer, The Little Willies can do it all and they can do it better than most. Do yourself a favor and pick up For The Good Times when it's released in January and keep your eyes peeled for concert dates. It's not an understatement to say that The Little Willies are one of the best bands around and they can definitely offer one of the best nights of music you could ever hope to experience.

Set One:
I Worship You
Tennessee Stud
Remember Me
Fist City
No Place To Fall
Tommy Rockwood
Delia's Gone
Wide Open Road
For The Good Times
Fowl Owl on the Prowl
Best of All Possible Worlds
It's Not You, It's Me
If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time

Set 2:
Roly Poly
I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
Love Me
Milking Bull
Permanently Lonely
Gotta Get Drunk
Lovesick Blues
Streets of Baltimore
Pennies on the Floor
Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves

Lou Reed

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