It's a truly rare animal, even in the guitar age, that marries ferocious guitar chops and singer songwriterdom. Milwaukee's humble son Willy Porter is perhaps best known as a downtuned six string wonder, but as a singer and a writer, and as a showman, he merits equal regard.
His song "Angry Words," recorded with his band in the mid-90s, broke the artist on AAA radio and opened the door to his unpredictable and rarely paralleled career of recent years. Willy is one of the very few solo artists who goes out on tour with rock bands and opens the show. That is a tough spot, and one had better throw down like a sonofabitch if one doesn't want to get killed by the throng of people who paid thirty bucks or more to see somebody like Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, or any of the other legendary acts for whom the artist has opened.
When I caught Willy at the Ryman Auditorium not so long ago, opening for Jeff Beck, I'd already seen him blow folkie minds at a festival in Jersey and at Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, so I knew what to expect, to some extent. That night I was in almost my favorite spot, three rows back in the center of the balcony. Surveying the crowd, I saw quite a few razor sharp guitar players, as one would expect at a Beck show. Within polite earshot, there were three session guys I knew and we exchanged greetings. None were familiar with the opener, and I said he was a badass guitar player, which always raises an eyebrow in Nashville.
Willy had been super good the previous two times I'd seen him, but he really came out with guns blazing that night at the Ryman. Not obviously--because that wouldn't necessarily get over, you could easily be dismissed as "flashy," which doesn't ring the bell. He was substantial and musical, made up a song on the spot with three suggested topics from the audience, sang deep songs beautifully, and played the beejesus out of his guitar the whole way through.
And they, we, were on our feet at the end. Then one by one those session guys in my section turned around and shook their heads the way that means the dude was mighty. He came back very humbly for an encore, and everybody was pumped for Beck. The perfect opener.
My recent phone conversation with Willy was like talking to an old friend, and that seldom happens in interviews. He's a hard working guy who seems very okay with himself and his spot in the mix. He's a family man and a very spiritual person, but in a down home, freewheeling kind of way. And that's the thing about original music. If it's true, then the music really does sound like the person is. And that's how Willy's music is. His new CD, High Wire Live, was put together and produced by the near revered Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, David Wilcox, Patty Larkin) from shows all over the world in the last year or two, without studio gimmickry of any kind. It's outstanding.