Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Willie Nile: “Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan” (2017) CD Review

On Willie Nile’s new CD, Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, he pays tribute to one of the world’s best and most prolific songwriters. The song choices are largely from the greatest hits realm (in fact, half of these songs are on Bob Dylan’s first Greatest Hits record). While there aren’t many surprises as far as song selection goes, the choice of material is only part of it. The main thing is the delivery, and Willie Nile nails it every time. There is something Dylanesque about Willie Nile’s style anyway, and so perhaps it’s no surprise that he does such a fantastic job with these songs. What’s maybe more remarkable is that these songs somehow never get old or lose their power or meaning. Most of these tracks are from the 1960s (the album’s title is a nod to another 1960s Dylan song, “Positively 4th Street”), and yet they still feel fresh. Obviously, that is due in part to Willie Nile’s delivery. His passion for the music comes across in every track, making this one of the best Dylan tributes ever recorded.

Willie Nile opens the album with one of Bob Dylan’s most famous and covered songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” giving us a fun, upbeat, rockin’ rendition. How is it that this song hasn’t aged? Perhaps it’s because we are once again in a seriously screwed up state, and here we were, thinking the times were changing for the better. Weren’t they? It seemed so, at least for a while. And then suddenly, bam, we hit a wall that pushed us backward by several decades. This song feels vibrant again, especially with the energy Willie Nile puts behind it. This is an excellent and needed version, a song to bring us together and maybe get us in motion to fix this bloody mess. It’s followed by “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” a favorite of mine when I was in my mid-teens, listening to that Greatest Hits cassette over and over, and still a great tune. Willie Nile gives it a steady rhythm during the verses. It has a bright, happy feel, including the repetition of “But I would not feel so all alone.” Ah, thanks for that.

Willie Nile’s version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” has a very different feel from its original, with almost a punk energy. This song too is once again pertinent (maybe it never stopped being relevant), with lines like “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they are forever banned?” Of course, the line that always stands out for me is “How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?” Seriously. The current administration believes the answer to the gun problem is more guns. So the real answer is going to blow around a bit longer before we grasp it and put it into action. I have to say I completely fucking love this rendition. It has vitality and integrity, and should give some younger folks an appreciation for this song. Then Nile’s version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” retains some of the folk feel of the original, but still with an energy and a positive, joyous feel.  I certainly believe Willie when he sings those lines of what he’s seen and heard; his voice has that experience. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing along with the chorus, shouting out the lines. It’s like Willie’s delivery invites your participation, even makes you feel like you are participating anyway. We are all in this together, he seems to be saying, in this emotionally involving rendition. “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it/And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.” Wow, wow, wow. Is this the best version of this song? I don’t know, but it’s certainly up there.

He delivers a sweet take on “I Want You.” That first time he sings, “Honey, I want you,” it’s such an honest and plain statement that it ends up being very moving. And then Willie Nile’s version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” had me dancing around in my tiny apartment. Sure, the Weathermen no longer exist, but this song is largely still relevant, and a whole lot of fun. The first time I listened to this disc, I ended up playing this song many times because I felt so bloody good moving around to it. And “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” is still the best advice ever offered in a song.

Bringing It All Back Home is one of my favorite Bob Dylan records. That’s the one that has “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It also contains the song that Nile chooses to follow that one, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” I’ve always loved this song’s opening lines: “My love, she speaks like silence/Without ideals or violence/She doesn't have to say she's faithful/Yet she's true like ice, like fire.” And this is a line I try to put into practice when I’m upset (but usually fail): “She knows too much to argue or to judge.” That’s followed by “Every Grain Of Sand,” an excellent song from Dylan’s 1981 record Shot Of Love (yes, during his “born again” period). Willie Nile gives us an incredibly moving and heartfelt rendition. For those who might be unfamiliar with this one, here is a taste of the lyrics: “Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake/Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break/In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”

I’ve heard The Byrds’ rendition of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” many more times than Dylan’s, and in fact The Byrds released their version first. On this CD, Willie Nile provides a good, lighthearted folk-rock version, singing, “Pick up your money and pack up your tent,” getting it right, unlike The Byrds, who switched “pick” and “pack” (I do still love that Byrds version, however). Toward the end, there is a sweet section delivered a cappella. The song then turns into a good jam at end, and I wish it went on a bit longer. Willie Nile then ends the CD with what is probably its least well-known song, “Abandoned Love,” a song released on Biograph in 1985, but recorded a decade earlier. It has been covered several times, and the version I am most familiar with is that by The Everly Brothers, off their wonderful Born Yesterday album (seriously, I love that album). And like every other song on this CD, Willie Nile does a great job with it. “Everybody's wearing a disguise/To hide what they've got left behind their eyes/But me, I can't cover what I am.” There is a humor to this song, and one line that always amuses me is, “But my heart is telling me I love you, but you’re strange.”

CD Track List
  1. The Times They Are A-Changin’
  2. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
  3. Blowin’ In The Wind
  4. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
  5. I Want You
  6. Subterranean Homesick Blues
  7. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
  8. Every Grain Of Sand
  9. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
  10. Abandoned Love
Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan is scheduled to be released on June 23, 2017 on River House Records.

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