Light of Day perennial Willie Nile says he’s enjoying music ‘more than ever’

by JAY LUSTIG
willie nile interview 2024

WILLIE NILE

“It’s a beautiful thing to see: That music can be such a unifier,” says Willie Nile of the Light of Day WinterFest, of which he is one of its biggest supporters, appearing at shows in each of its 24 years. This year he will be at the “Songwriters on the River” concert at City Winery in New York, Jan. 17, as well as the main concert, Jan. 20 at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank (with his band); and the “Songwriters by the Sea” show at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park, Jan. 21.

Light of Day — which began as a birthday party for Bob Benjamin, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease — has grown into a multi-week, multi-city festival, with related activities at other times in the year. Over the years, it has raised close to $6 million in the fight against Parkinson’s disease and related disorders.

I talked to the New York-based Nile, a prolific songwriter and dynamic performer, by phone last week.

Q: I know you have a long history with Light of Day. You actually knew Bob Benjamin before it started, right?

A: Oh, yeah. Bob originally called me the first year, when he was having a party. Marshall Crenshaw was there and a lot of the local musicians, and it was a great party, and it just turned into Light of Day. But I met Bob back in 1980 when my first record came out. He was going to the University of Buffalo and that’s where I’m from: I’ve been in New York City forever, but I was born in Buffalo. Bob interviewed me for the University of Buffalo paper or some magazine. Maybe it was a Bruce (Springsteen) magazine. But I met him back then and we’ve been friends ever since. I love the guy, and he’s suffered so much. It’s really been a long journey for Bob. Such courage.

MICHAEL STAHL, portraitsbymichaelstahl.com

Willie Nile at the 2023 Light of Day concert at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair with, from left, Jon Caspi, Guy Davis and Jake Thistle.

Q: Definitely. Besides the charitable aspect, which of course is the main thing, Light of Day has come to represent a lot of things to a lot of different people. What does it mean to you, beyond the charitable aspect?

A: It’s a shared experience among the musicians and the audience. For me, it’s like a little Woodstock in that there’s, what, 33 events, 600 musicians and the people that come. People come year after year, they see friends, they know each other. Everybody’s there to have a good time, to celebrate, feel good. Music lifts our spirits and it lifts mine. That’s why I do it, you know. And the audience is there for the same reason. It’s a party. And I love the camaraderie of the musicians. I really do. And I get to see lots of friends that I’ve met and known over the years.

Q: Are there any moments from different shows, over the years, that stand out for you?

A: There’s so many. Obviously, for Bruce Springsteen to come and play with us, it’s always a great honor, and so much fun. I mean, Bruce has been the backbone of Light of Day. He really helped put it on the map and he’s a brother, and I love him and I’m very grateful for all the time and energy he’s given to Light of Day. So I would say, playing “Heaven Help the Lonely” with Bruce numerous times, playing “One Guitar” with Bruce.

And at the end … it was a couple of years ago, they were at the end of the show. Bob Benjamin came on and he was in his wheelchair, and it was so moving. All the performers were onstage, you know. Bruce was there and singing “Happy Birthday” to Bob, and they brought out a cake with candles, and to see how much it meant to him … for me, when I think back to Light of Day, I just think of so many friends, both musicians and fans. And obviously playing with Bruce is such a joy. But to see Bob that night will always resonate in my heart, for all my days. Him getting that love.

Q: Have you given any thought to this year’s Light of Day shows? Anything special planned or anything like that?

A: Today and tomorrow, I’m going to focus and see what I’m going to play. I always love to come out there and just blow the roof off the place. It’s just, I’ve got a great band. We’re going to raise the roof, we’re going to blow it off, actually. I told (Light of Day executive director) Tony Pallagrosi to have the fire department on hand, because I’m not sure where the roof is going to land. But we’ll put it back on when we’re done. You know, we always do that. We blow the roof off and put it back on. So my plans are to come and have a great time, and share that with people and raise money for this great cause. Celebrate Bob Benjamin’s birthday.

WILLIE NILE

Q: Any stuff coming up this year that we should know about?

A: There’s lots of stuff. I’m putting a live album out pretty shortly, actually. I was in the studio yesterday mixing it: Willie Nile Live at Daryl’s House Club. I’m excited about it. All the power and energy that I hear when we play is there. And in spades.

In March, I’ll be in Italy and Spain on tour, and there’s more tours planned in June. I’m sure we’ll have a big birthday bash in Asbury Park somewhere (Nile’s birthday is June 7). And I’m working on an anthology. I’ll put the live album out first and give it some space, and then put out the anthology. So I hope that I’m going to put that out this year as well.

I’m busy writing, you know, and enjoying the music more than ever. It’s funny: I’ve been doing it for so long, but I’ve never enjoyed it more. I think it’s just … you keep growing and learning. I’m still learning, you know. It’s surprising.

Q: Do you think that has anything to do with the pandemic? Did not being able to do it make you maybe appreciate it a little more now?

A: I don’t think it’s necessarily that. I think it’s just a case of, as I’m getting older, it’s getting better and better and I’m enjoying it more and more. I think it’s just the 10,000 hours. What’s that phrase in Zen? “How do you get good at something? Spend 10,000 hours at it.” I’ve put my 10,000 hours in, and then some, and I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor now. You can see it in two seconds onstage. I feel it. And I’ve got a killer band. My band is righteous. I’m really looking forward to playing Count Basie on the 20th.

Q: Do you mean that, maybe earlier in your career, you took it for granted or something like that?

A: Oh no, never. I never took it for granted. I always was surprised and dazzled to be doing anything in music. From touring with The Who across the U.S. in 1980 … who dreams about that? Who could even imagine something like that? To 2022 … two Mays ago, I played with The Who at Woodstock. I opened up for The Who again, and it was so great. The things that have happened, I’ve never taken it for granted. I’m just very grateful and appreciative that I had the opportunity.

My 106-year-old father … I just got off the phone with him. He’s doing great. Takes no medication. He goes to church every day. I mean, who goes to church every day? But he does, and he’s doing great, and when I speak to him he’ll say, “How’re you doing?” I say, “Well, you know, I’m doing good, but I’m so busy. I’m really working hard.” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but you get to do what you love. Not everybody gets to do that.” And really, that has been my … I mean, it’s not easy. There’s times that are much harder than others. But that’s with anybody’s life, with whatever job you have. But not a day goes by that I’m not grateful that I’m able to make my living and survive making music: doing something I love with my fellow musicians.

And the people you meet along the way … that’s something I really take to heart. Whether it’s in the Jersey Shore, anywhere in Jersey, in the Tri-State area, Europe … I’ve met friends along the way, and they’re treasures. It’s meaningful to me. The music is, and the camaraderie along the way.

Willie Nile, right, and James Maddock at the 2018 Light of Day concert at Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair.

Q: Which is obviously, such a big part of what Light of Day has come to mean: the community of musicians.

A: Absolutely. You know, it’s a shared experience, like I said, among musicians and the audience. I was at the original Woodstock, you know, and there was this feeling … I was there for one day. My brother was getting married nearby and we happened to be driving on the Friday, and my brother’s friend who was driving said, “Hey, there’s this thing called The Festival. The Who are playing.” I go, “Let’s go!” And we went. The wedding was the next day. So we went there, we’re right smack dab in the middle. Saw the whole Friday’s performances. Saw Richie Havens, God bless him, do his thing. Stayed overnight, slept there in the middle of the field, woke up and went to my brother’s wedding.

I didn’t get to see The Who. But a year and a half ago I got to play with The Who at Woodstock, their first time back there. You can’t make that stuff up. I don’t miss the uniqueness and how lucky I have been … and again, it’s not an easy journey. Good luck being a musician, you know, and trying to make a living. Not easy.

But that said, those moments …. singing “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Ringo in Saratoga in 1992. Are you kidding? I opened up for him for like half a dozen shows in the Northeast and he couldn’t have been nicer. I mean, he’s a Beatle, for crying out loud, and he was so nice and gracious. Talk about a class act. The last night of that tour in ’92 was in Saratoga, New York. I did my half an hour, you know, in front of 20,000 people — something like that, 15 to 20. And I’m on the side of the stage and he’s doing the show and he sings “Photograph.” That’s his last song before his own encores. And he comes off the stage … I must have been maybe 30 feet away. I wasn’t close. And he saw me. He knew it was my last night. And he comes darting over to me to give me a hug, shake my hand and thank me for a good job we did. I mean, he still had more encores to do. Who thinks of that? That’s so old school. I love it. And you can’t make that up.

There’s so many things that happened to me like that, with so many great artists. I mean, Bruce — God bless him, you know — invites me onstage at Giant Stadium, in front of 70,000 people going crazy. At Shea Stadium, I played with Bruce.

I’ve been really fortunate, and people have been very kind, and I’ve been able to write my songs and make a living, and get by doing what I love. I’m a lucky dude.

Q: Right. Well, I personally think few people have been around for as long as you have and have continued to write such great songs, year after year. It really is amazing.

A: Thank you, Jay. I’m surprised: Usually as musicians — or rockers, whatever — as we get older, we lose something. But I’ve been backwards. I’m still writing all the time, knocking out records, and the quality seems to be getting better. I’m very proud of it. And this live record man, whoa! I never heard us sound like this on record. So I’m really looking forward to getting it out there so people can hear it. I’m so proud of the band, and that show.

CRISTINA ARRIGONI

WILLIE NILE

Q: When was the show recorded?

A: It was Sept. 3, 2022. We had just gotten back from a tour in Western Canada. We did like a dozen shows or something — 9, 10, 11 shows. So the band was well oiled and greased and we got on that stage and you can hear it.

Q: That sounds great. I can’t wait to hear it.

Any other thoughts on Light of Day, which is coming up very soon?

A: Here’s to Light of Day. Here’s to 24 years of raising money for a really good cause. When you think about all the years and all the musicians and all the people who have come out … people all over Jersey, and all over Europe … it’s incredible, really. It’s a beautiful thing to see: That music can be such a unifier.

One of the things we’re missing in the government is some kind of a Minister of Joy or someone whose job it is to bring people’s spirits up. Forget politics. Let’s just be good brothers and sisters on this planet. And that’s really what is reflected in Light of Day. I can’t wait. I’m really looking forward to it.

For information on all of this year’s Light of Days shows, visit lightofday.org.

Check out these other new interviews about Light of Day with:

JOE GRUSHECKY

GLEN BURTNIK

WILLIAMS HONOR

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