Give me the Willies
Ben Wilborn of The Willies never wanted to play just one type of music. Just one type of instrument wouldn’t do, either; he plays violin and mandolin in addition to the guitar, his main instrument. Wilborn aptly describes the three-member Willies’ music as “Americana,” spanning a variety of genres from blues to country. The group’s Web site defines its music as “hillbilly funk,” but there’s nothing corn-pone about it. Though a recent performance at the Great Basin Brewing Company included Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield,” it was a tribute to the songwriter, not the Hee Haw character.
The three Reno natives met three years ago while touring local venues with their former Americana-style bands. Wilborn was with the Lazy Eights and Joe McKenna (upright bass) and David Newman (percussion) were with Eat at Joe’s.
“The guy can pull more songs out of his hat than you can shake a stick at,” Newman says of Wilborn.
At Great Basin, they shift from the jaunty country beat of Owens’ “Act Naturally” to the smooth harmony and calypso sound of “Fly Like an Angel,” which closes with a soft whisper. Their music moves in surprising directions, taking a sharp turn from back-alley blues onto a country road before curving back into an urban jazz improv.
Even the characters within Wilborn’s lyrics face the unexpected. In “Bad Bad Day” a small-town bully awakens to the falseness of his own bravado, while in the blues ballad “Amelia,” the famous aviatrix’s dreams are cut short by a flashing fuel light.
As a kid, Wilborn always got into trouble during violin lessons by rushing ahead and finishing the piece his way. Newman also admits that during his youth, he couldn’t make it through two rounds of scales on the piano before breaking into improv. What was once a source of frustration for their former music teachers is now enjoyed by their fans.
Though Wilborn wryly refers to improv as “an extension of lack of discipline,” such spontaneity would be impossible if the band members didn’t share the same level of ability. “Joe and I have an amazing connection as a rhythm section,” says Newman. This affinity allows the group to take off in different directions without fear of leaving someone behind.
After a fast-paced, edgy “Working Man Blues,” the next number opens with Wilborn’s rhythm and blues guitar solo. McKenna’s solo follows, his fingers quick-stepping along the strings of the bass against the steady pulse of the cymbals. Switching to violin, Wilborn plays intricate jazz riffs, shifting to an Irish melody set against the primal beat of the drum and the enthusiastic claps of the audience. The piece has no title as it is pure improvisation.
“It’s all about the improv—going into uncharted territory every time we play,” McKenna explains.
Unlike some groups who faithfully stick to a comfortable repertoire of established favorites, The Willies constantly explore diverse musical terrain throughout their performances, including putting their own spin on an occasional cover tune.
“You see The Willies live, you’ll never see the same show twice.” says Newman.