in performance: the little willies


the little willies: norah jones in the hands of lee alexander, jim campilongo, richard julian, dan rieser. photo: christian lantry.

As technical snafus surfaced near the conclusion of Remember Me, the call was made from the sound booth at the Kentucky Theatre for The Little Willies to abort. This was, after all, a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. And while a crackle of static in the mix might have meant little to last night’s capacity crowd, it likely seemed like a clap of thunder to the sound engineers.

But the New York-based Little Willies – specifically, its celebrated co-vocalist Norah Jones – were in no mood to bring the tune to a halt. They guided the Scott Wiseman country standard to a relaxed confident landing and appeared none-too-eager to redo the tune due to a few crunchy pops in the mix.

“Was it just a crackle?” Jones asked. “Because I thought I was really good.”

Truth to tell, the whole band was. Jones may have been the Willies’ unavoidable star attraction, but there was ample performance fire crackling throughout the ensemble.

Guitarist Richard Julian ably manned the vocal rigs of the vintage trucking song Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves, lead guitarist Jim Campilongo glided with agility through solos that embraced the lyrical country grace of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis and bassist Lee Alexander triggered the transformation of the Hank Williams staple Lovesick Blues into a boozy lullaby.

But The Little Willies’ ace-in-the-hole was clearly drummer Dan Rieser. His booming snare sound gave a rustic, neo-garage charge to Ralph Stanley’s I Worship You and a second Williams gem, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The former song – and the bulk of the set, for that matter – came for the band’s forthcoming For the Good Times album.

Jones seemed more than happy – animated, in fact – to not be the sole center of attention. While escaping the New York pop-jazz accents that dress her solo recordings was impossible (case in point: the hushed, noir-like atmospherics she employed for the Dolly Parton classic Jolene), she ably leapt into the after-hours country-roots groove that remains The Little Willies’ stock and trade. She playfully traded vocals with Julian on Foul Owl on the Prowl (a tune supplied from the In the Heat of the Night soundtrack) and added tasty barroom piano spice to the country jailhouse rock of Kris Kristofferson’s Best of All Possible Worlds. Good times, indeed.

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