The phrase “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” was coined by Frederick Douglass in 1895 as a way to inspire young black Americans to continue rallying against a system of injustice that wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He knew it, because he lived it. He spent his whole life challenging the status quo and his legacy lives on every time an oppressed person refuses to go gently into that good night.
What does agitation look like in 2018?
Well, it comes in many forms and from many different places.
It looks like Robert De Niro shouting “Fuck Donald Trump!” from the rooftops. It looks like thousands of students marching against gun violence in the wake of another mass shooting. It looks like people of varying races and socio-economic backgrounds refusing to stay silent while families are being ripped apart along the border.
In the case of Buffalo’s own Willie Nile, his contribution to the movement arrived earlier this year in the form of “Children of Paradise,” an emphatic 12-song declaration that we’re all in this together despite how badly the fuckers want to kill our buzz. Not only is it one of the best records of 2018, it’s also a feisty rebuke of the current administration’s desire to whitewash everything that made America great in the first place, which, in the spirit of Douglass, couldn’t be more appropriate. He writes from the heart and believes that everyone from the 1% on down deserves an equal opportunity to reap the benefits of a supposedly free society.
I caught up with him recently to discuss the album and what fans can expect during his homecoming show at Town Ballroom on Dec. 15. If you need a break from the buzzkill of last-minute holiday shopping, come downtown on Saturday to see what Willie and his band have in store.
MNOD: One of the first things that stood out to me on “Children of Paradise” was the cover. How did that image come about?
Nile: They’re all street people from my neighborhood in New York City. The picture was taken by a photographer named Cristina Arrigoni and what I loved about it is that they’re not children. I named the album “Children of Paradise,” but I wanted to show that we’re all children of paradise. Even the outsiders. The idea encompasses everybody.
MNOD: How important do you think incorporating protest into music is in 2018?
Nile: I think there’s room for everything in music. If someone has something they’re passionate about, it’s important that they get it out there regardless of the topic. I didn’t set out to write a protest record explicitly, because the songs just flow naturally from things that I care about. The title track is actually an older track that I brought back given its relevance to the times we’re living in. All the songs on this record came pretty quickly, which is usually the case, but they weren’t intentionally topical.
MNOD: “Earth Blues” and “Gettin’ Ugly Out There” capture the current mood of America perfectly. Where did the inspiration for those come from?
Nile: Well, with “Earth Blues,” I wanted to give the planet a voice in response to everything that is happening in the world. There’s a lot of negativity out there and I believe that music can offer respite to people after they’ve suffered through a lot of hard days. I watch the news pretty closely and it really is getting ugly out there. I write about things that move me, so there’s something for everyone on this record. There’s protest music, party music, and tongue-in-cheek music that has a deeper meaning beyond the face of the lyric. Regardless of how difficult it can be for some people to remain optimistic, I wanted to show that music can offer hope for the future.
MNOD: What are some of your fondest memories of Buffalo?
Nile: I have so many. I come from a large family, so, for me, Buffalo was about being surrounded by family and friends. The city is filled with great, salt-of-the-earth people who always stand up for their neighbor and I’ve always felt that it’s one of the great cities. Just look at how the city supports the Buffalo Bills. Fans continue to show up year after year, because they feel a strong connection to the team. My 101-year-old father still lives there, so I come back to the area quite often. I’ve seen how much the downtown area has changed and I think it’s great to see the city coming back. There’s a lot of great architecture in addition to the classic concert venues. I just read that The London Times named Buffalo as America’s coolest city, so it’s definitely a new day for Buffalo. Our show at Town Ballroom is going to be memorable, because that’s a classic place with an amazing history. I was told that Frank Sinatra played his very first solo show there and it’s a place I love going to. A real gem.
MNOD: The last time I saw you play was on stage with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009. What do you remember about that night?
Nile: That was a cool night. I took my daughters to the show and I remember that they didn’t let anyone into the arena until 8:15. I didn’t expect to play, but I got a text saying that Bruce wanted me to come backstage and then he brought me out to play near the end of the show. He’s a friend and someone that is dedicated to what he does in every way.
MNOD: How have the new songs translated to the stage so far?
Nile: The tour has been really great. I’m always thinking about how new songs will work in a live setting and this album is really strong. Playing live is something I’ve always enjoyed and my band is so much fun to play with. I think we’re better now than ever before. The playing is better, the songs are better, the set lists are better. I always tell the venue we’re playing at that we’ll blow the roof off during the performance, but replace it when we’re done.
Willie Nile And His Band play Town Ballroom on Saturday, December 15.