The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Carmen Nickerson and Willy Porter. Courtesy photo.

Willy Porter

When: Sunday, April 24, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $25-$35

Traveling through
Willy Porter plays Tupelo

By Michael Witthaus

 Touring over 100 days a year, Willy Porter stops at every kind of venue: churches, coffee houses, theaters. Does he have a preference? 

“I don’t, no. The show tonight is the one I care about,” Porter said recently by telephone from his home in Milwaukee. “If you are playing original music and you’re surviving, it doesn’t matter where you do it. It’s a miracle and a beautiful thing.”
Still, Porter does enjoy playing in New Hampshire. It’s something he’s done since his earliest days as a performer. One of his first shows in the state happened at The Muse at Gray Goose, a Londonderry listening room that became Tupelo Music Hall in 2004, and where Porter performs with musical partner Carmen Nickerson on April 24. 
“It’s near and dear to me, I love coming back there,” Porter said. “It’s a rich place to play, full of song. I can’t wait to get back.”
The upcoming show will draw from Porter’s catalog and weave in songs from a yet to be titled Porter/Nickerson project that’s “90 percent complete” according to the guitarist-singer. Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, Patty Larkin) produced. 
“It’s been a real joy to work with him, and a real contrast from the last record, where I was producing and mixing in my house,” Porter said. “I really needed to back away and bring some partnerships to this record.”
Introduced through a mutual friend, Nickerson joined Porter in 2011 and quickly became an integral part of his music. On “Sandoval’s Ghost,” a murder ballad from the 2012 studio release Cheeseburgers & Gasoline, she shared lead vocals. It was a first for any of Porter’s albums — and a moment of truth. 
“I had to write a song from a woman’s perspective; we weren’t really writing together at that time,” he said. “That tune appeared and she just grabbed it. … In terms of blues and R&B, she’s just a really deep singer and that was great. I think it opened a door musically for me that led to this album of co-writes coming out in October.”
Porter’s most recent record is last year’s Human Kindness. It’s a big effort, with more than a few electrified upbeat rockers. In concert, Porter’s guitar takes over, but since the songs were written acoustically and then layered for the studio, it’s a natural transition. 
“It really is like going back to the egg in a way,” Porter said. “Plus the electronics and sound systems that are available today have made it possible for an acoustic guitar to be a pretty monstrous instrument live — there’s a lot of audio engineering of that sort of captures the guitar as a band.  I would love to have a full tribe out there but … financially, it’s not feasible.”
One of the record’s standouts is “Freedom,” inspired by humanitarian work done by Storyville, a coffee maker and activist company based in Seattle. Porter and Storyville founder John Phelps co-wrote the song. 
“He came up with the chorus line and the main guitar hook,” Porter said. 
The two became acquainted six years ago.
Storyville’s work focuses primarily on ending global slavery and human trafficking.  
“What is interesting about that company is they have taken a stance to both create the best coffee they can and make [a difference]. Storyville has what I would consider to be some great architecture,” Porter said. “The mission they have underlies what they’re really working toward, and the culture that they have created … is pretty amazing to me.”
Porter is a master at writing hard-hitting songs that aren’t heavy-handed. 
“I think it’s really vital and very important that artists are true to what they are experiencing and seeing and if they bear witness through their music, I’m grateful for that,” he said. “In my case, I always strive to offend everybody equally because I feel as though we are not blameless, any of us, in the situations we face.  That gives me a lot more scope and ground to draw from.”
On “Too Big to Sell” — co-written with New Hampshire native Tom Pirozzoli for the 2009 album How to Rob a Bank — Porter points to iconoclastic artists like Monet, Gauguin and Rousseau as inspirations. 
“All of my heroes of palette and brush/have broken the rules,” he sings. It comes across as a mission statement of sorts. 
“You have to create your own integrity. … If you’re making art for the sake of the art itself, I think that it finds its own equilibrium,” Porter said. “That’s really what that song is about — commitment to your own truth.”

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