The Little Willies

You either buy it or you don’t. That’s the way I felt coming out of the Bell House last week in Brooklyn after watching Norah Jones, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Reiser and guitarist/singer Richard Julien—i.e. The Little Willies— do their thing. It’s classic country and bluegrass tunes by the likes of Ralph Stanley (“I Worship You”), Johnny Cash (“Wide Open Road”) and Lefty Frizzell (“If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time”) slicked down and pepped up for an audience that probably has little or no interest in hearing the original versions. “Branson!” was the verdict of my friend Alex, referring to that scary Missouri town that’s eternally chocked full of wholesome family entertainment— where shows by the T"hree Redneck Tenors" and "Amazing Pets" co-exist with other extravaganzas like "Tony Orlando’s Christmas Show" and "The Legend of Kung Fu." Originally many of the shows there were country music–oriented and the place became known as a country music version of the elephant’s graveyard. While Alex was perhaps overstating the case, there was some truth in what he said. The Little Willies, which is a side project for everyone involved, are classic country and bluegrass songwriting polished up for urban tastes. For fans of the real thing, the lack of a pedal steel or fiddle was sorely felt from the very beginning. But then that would have been too countrified for a crowd who were there mainly to eyeball Jones and hope for a rendition of “Don’t Know Why.” Still, despite the fast, modernized arrangements on some of the tunes, there’s definitely something to be said for hearing a Lefty tune performed live in 2012 by an act filled with such obvious talents as Campilongo’s nimble guitar picking and the vocal chemistry between Jones and Julien. And say what you want about Jones’ career hits and misses (lately more misses), the woman’s laconic vocal style is alluring. She can also play a fairly mean barrelhouse piano. After watching and listening close up to her playing and singing as half a duet on Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times” and on what is possibly the most immortal tune in the entire book of bluegrass/classic country/Americana, Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud,” I came away convinced that despite her fame, and legions of male admirers—okay, she’s cute, get over it— Jones has the kind of effortless phrasing gifts that the great ones are all born with. Speaking of her male fans, for some inexplicable reason, many of the male Little Willie fans at the show were dressed in plaid shirts. Not really sure what this Fashion Don’t signifies? They finally got around to listening to Nevermind? Plaid hides unsightly bulges? They heard that being swathed in Royal Stewart gets Norah hot? Probably best not to contemplate that one too long.

Clearly, all the participants in the Willies are having a ball and are willing and able to include almost anything in the band’s repertoire as evidenced by the fact that both their new album, For the Good Times and the supporting live set feature a performance of Quincy Jones’, “Foul Owl on the Prowl,” as a cool goof. While purists may bitch, this is a lark, not an exercise in authenticity. It’s all about digging out great, mostly forgotten songs, most in the country vein, and jamming them up in a loose, fun way and for that, it’s a success.