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Buffalo's king of rock 'n' roll rocks out

Among the makings of great rock 'n' roll is a sense of urgency.

Willie Nile embodies every sense of rock 'n' roll urgency -- from arms-outreached anthems to stiff upper-lipped riffs that scream, "Nothing in the world matters more than this moment."

A Buffalo native who headed for New York City after graduating from the University at Buffalo in 1971, Nile keeps close ties to his home base. And Friday night, he returned to a near-capacity and entirely appreciative crowd of family members, friends and fans in the Tralf. This time, he brought along his ace touring band instead of performing with his usual Buffalo band-in-waiting.

While Nile, 63, is easily the oldest among his road mates -- Matt Hogan (guitar, vocals), Johnny Pisano (bass, vocals) and Alex Alexander (drums) -- he is no less nimble on his feet. This is a strong statement, considering the downright punishing work of the band throughout a nearly two-hour set that included songs new and old.

Nile dedicated the show to Levon Helm, the legendary drummer and a vocalist for the Band, who died April 19.

Upon taking the stage, he served opening salvos of "Sing Me a Song" and "Singin' Bell" and delivered a self-fulfilled prophecy: "This roof won't be here the whole night."

He followed with the sobering message of the title track to his latest album, "Innocent Ones." And with the ensuing sing-along, "Heaven Help the Lonely," Nile made clear his artistic mission of the evening -- to achieve mutual joy and compassion through rock 'n' roll.

"Rich and Broken" -- a song about the dangers of fame, which was dedicated to Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson -- enlisted Nile's great-nephews Eddie and Joe Apen on banjo and mandolin, respectively. Nile followed with a missile of a missive at the hypocrisy of suicide bombers in "Holy War," a sentimental journey across the country in "American Ride" and an uplifting reggae romp in "When One Stands."

A highlight of the night and, possibly, a career highlight for Nile was the closing anthem, "One Guitar." Nile has turned the song into a project of the same name, urging all comers to record the song and donate the profits to charity. Already, it has been performed by a range of believers, from his friend Bruce Springsteen to May Day Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Then, back onstage came the Apens and other family members and friends, including local teen rocker Steve Fleck, who recently recorded his version of "One Guitar" for an upcoming album to benefit the Food Bank.

Let there be no doubt. Nile is the reigning rock 'n' roll ambassador for the City of Good Neighbors.


Willie Nile

Friday night in the Tralf Music Hall, 622 Main St.