Willier Than Thou

Word of mouth did its word-of business last night, and under skies that spattered and threatened snow (damn groundhogs), The Living Room filled up full for an outing by The Little Willies. The Willies are an occasional downtown carouse that started life in concept as a Willie Nelson cover band and then, say thankya, peeped over the horizon some and grew to cover country in general, and Willie Nelson in passing.

Which means that Norah Jones was playing up-close, homey, and pretty much unannounced, in one of the City’s best small venues and at The Right Price (free, with tip jar). While everyone’s favorite safe coolster musical outlook these days is “I love everything – except country,” last night there was country love all over the place, and it felt good. Pierre and I turned up early (Pierre is a proud dyed-in-the-gingham country afficionado; I grew up on summer New England country & northern radio, and sometimes the spirit moves me) and squoze in just in time, before the I-can’t-see jostling started toward the back and the lines for the bathrooms got big-big.

What can a mere Pepper say about Norah Jones? Frankly, she’s luminous. I’ve already run my public self-flagellation over not jumping her train when it was still in the station. In keeping with the rest of her gracious campaign of world domination, she plays without a trace of star glam or lookee-here ego. She’s Goldilocks in Downtown mufti: neither too big nor too small, neither overplaying nor holding back her gifts. Norah is at home and among friends, perched on a phone book – the Living Room piano bench doesn’t adjust – in a PIPING HOT coffeehouse t-shirt and jeans, looking comfortable and glad to belong. You can almost forget that she’s a star. Almost.

The Willies feature “Willie” Richard Julian on vox and clacky acoustic guitar, “Willie” Jim Campilongo on rugged and lyrical electric guitar, “Willie” Lee Alexander on doghouse bass, and drummer “Willie” Dan Rieser in the back. “Willie” Jones trades off vox with Willie Julian through a set of country classics and culty dark horse tunes, spiced up with a couple of fun, goofy originals. One of which, “Milking Bull,” ruminates briefly on things that can’t be undone and involves a new scatalogical twist on the can’t-put-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube trope. Except not toothpaste. If you get my drift. “Potty humor,” says Willie Norah.

Best Line of the Evening

Willie Julian: That’s Willie Jones on vocals and piano. Hey, how come you get such a good name?
Willie Jones: There must be hundreds of Willie Joneses. We could look it up.
Willie Julian: Well, you’ve got a phone book right there.
Willie Jones: That’s right, I do.
Guy in the Audience: Do you have hindsight?
Half the Audience: Whoa!
Other half of the Audience: What did he say?

We get a terrific range of music over the two Willies sets, from Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” to Johnny Cash’s “Delia,” and from Kris Kristofferson’s heartbreaker “For the Good Times,” which Norah voices with dusky clarity, to “Never Get Out of this World Alive” by Hank Williams. There’s a sidestep to “No Place to Fall” by Townes Van Zandt, and a wacky Willie Julian original about catching black-clad Lou Reed out in the country in the act of cow-tipping – “I thought you were vegetarian,” wonders the song’s Julian-like protagonist, to Reed’s response that he doesn’t eat them, he just knocks them down.

The high point is Norah’s cover of “Jolene,” Dolly Parton’s classic please-don’t-take-my-man hit. Where the original is crisp, defiant, and a little too bouncy for its subject, Norah paints it as a scene of bruised overcast. When she confides that “He talks about you in his sleep/ There’s nothing I can do to keep/ From crying when he calls your name, Jolene,” I believe her. Where Parton drew a sketch and allowed the story pull through from its own weight, Norah brings an overheard confessional quality to the song. In her hands it is fragile and bleak and alive.

Frank Tedesso filled the hotspot before the Willies. He’s eager and breathless, the happy picture of a big beardy man-child, radiating a swaddling and sheepish air of ingenuous discovery. I like hearing him tell stories, and I like hearing him sing in his great fluffy towel of a warm basso. Tedesso’s songs have a fresh flush that is sometimes new and sometimes a bit on the beaten path; when he pans gems from the river, as in “Birds” (in which he concludes that we can learn a lot from the French, what with “Frankie” Truffaut, guillotines, and Michel Foucault – but that we can learn even more from birds), the experience is delightful.

As it turns out, everyone likes country after all. Pierre will have pictures of the show later in the week.

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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