They were turning folks away at the door Friday evening at the Albright-Knox, where Buffalo native Willie Nile performed inside the gallery's auditorium before an ecstatic standing-room crowd.
Nile, who left Buffalo for Manhattan 30 years ago, turned in an absolutely inspired set of songs, most of them culled from his new album, "Streets of New York," set to be released on Feb. 21.
"Streets . . ." is the masterstroke of Nile's career, a tenure that has seen him escape the "new Dylan/Springsteen" tag in order to flourish into one of the most refreshing narrative songwriters of his generation.
Performing solo, and alternating between acoustic guitar and the museum's grand piano, Nile was a compelling presence, his down-to-earth demeanor and folk troubadour's charisma delighting the full house, which comprised folks who knew his music well and eagerly welcomed him back home.
Solo acoustic shows can be a real drag, if the performer isn't up to the task of electrifying them. Nile is that rare artist who can make a song rock hard without a rhythm section, turn a room better suited to jazz and classical music into a sweaty nightclub, bring the passion of the broad stroke in the big arena down to the smaller-scale reality of folk music.
In this, he is much like two of his idols, Dylan and Springsteen. Both men's shadows loom large over Nile, and he checks them consistently in both lyric and melody. But Nile's gift is to take these raw ingredients and employ them in the creation of his own unique gumbo. These songs are beautiful, heartrending, damn easy to like.
Nile loves to dedicate songs to the artists who have come before him, and inspired him in some fashion. On Friday, he did this several times, wasting no time dedicating set opener "Every Time the World Turns Around" to George Harrison.
Immediately in evidence was what may be Nile's greatest gift; he can conjure the spirit of an artist at will, and though this tune didn't really sound like a Harrison composition, it was easy to picture the "quiet Beatle" singing it.
Nile is understandably enthusiastic about "Streets of New York," a record that has earned nods from Bono, Lucinda Williams and Lou Reed, among others, even prior to its release. From the record, he pulled "When One Stands," an instantly lovable anthem the singer dedicated to Bob Marley, and with good reason -- the song bears the broad, populist topicality and indelible, empowering chorus common to Marley's most-loved pieces. The crowd needed little urging to join in with the rousing chorus.
Nile writes the majority of his songs at the piano, but tends to perform them live with an electric guitar slung across his hip. It was refreshing, and offered insight into the eminent musicality of his songs, to hear him perform them live before the ivories. "Back Home" -- my vote for the finest tune Nile has ever written, and one of many high points on "Streets . . ." -- came alive in this piano version, Nile's fluid, legato stylings lending a roiling rhythm to the song. This earned him one of the evening's several standing ovations.
Nile is preparing to hit the road in support of "Streets Of New York." If Friday's show offers us any indication, he'll be making new friends everywhere he goes. Superb.
Friday night in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.