The debut album by the Little Willies is now available on Milking Bull/EMI.
When a friend invited me to hear Norah Jones the first time, I didn’t know who she was other than the girl from this weird music video set on the beach, which I’d seen at a friend’s house with the sound turned off. “You want me to see her?” I asked.
Between the underwhelming visuals from her video, and news that she was the daughter of a sitar player, I almost didn’t accept the friend’s invitation (a late-40s single guy whose intentions I couldn’t quite divine). Only at the insistence of musically more-informed girlfriends who swore I should take “any chance” to see Norah before she was big did I go to that summer 2002 concert in Tempe, Arizona.
It was probably one of the smallest venues she played on that tour, but luckily later I moved to New York, where Norah still has found ways to sneak into the small, local venues where she started—places where friends like Richard Julian and Jim Campilongo still play gigs. Follow the friends’ Lower East Side sets, I discovered, and sometimes you catch Jones herself, still sneaking in the front door with a guitar case slung on her back.
The night before, my roommate and I had randomly caught a Julian show at the Living Room. While we waited on the subway platform afterward, my roommate pointed out a bearded young man she recognized from the other fans at the show. I guess we two were the sort quasi-hipsters take note of in bars, for he recognized us too and came over to chat. In the course of our conversation, we learned that sometimes he played gigs with Julian, who’d be back the next night to play with a “Willie Nelson cover band,” the Little Willies. Including Norah, he told us sotto voce.
We were all over that tip. “But get there early,” he warned us. “Come for my set at nine. There’ll be a crowd.” So we went, and we did, and there was. And then there was Norah, at long last, perched atop two phone books at the piano.
The fans who crowded into the back room of the Living Room were mostly people who’d run in her circle before the tabloids chased her out of Williamsburg by printing pics of her apartment building right after she won a handful of Grammys. Most who knew of the Little Willies were strictly on a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend basis.
Their selections ranged all over that night — from “Jackson” (a Jones and Julian duet) to a song by the Band I’ve now forgotten—to “Jackson” again at the end of the second set since they weren’t content with the first performance. Whether justifying the repeat sing or explaining a rather psychedelic road-trip song they must have penned themselves (about meeting Lou Reed on a barren strip of asphalt), Norah was as relaxed and as full of infectious giggles as a hostess asked to jam at the end of her birthday party, with everyone on first-name basis.
I don’t think they played more than one Nelson cover at most, but we didn’t mind. We knew the point was for us all to sneak away from her fame with her that night, go back to the time when her music was just about having fun in someone’s living room, and pretend that story-hungry tabloid photographers were just people who stalk all the super-faces on TV.
Anna Broadway is a Brooklyn-based writer at work on her first book, Sexless In The City (Doubleday, spring 2007), a memoir of reluctant chastity based on her blog (annabroadway.blogspot.com).