Just over a year ago, Willy Porter made a formidable opening act for Toad The Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips at New York City's luxurious Canal Room. Last week, the friendly Wisconsin guitar wizard returned to the TriBeCa haunt as a headliner, bringing his distinctive mix of guitar theatrics, heartfelt lyrics and a compellingly entertaining storytelling style. An expert in more guitar styles than most people could probably name, Porter makes the guitar an extension of his soul, bending it to his will, strumming and plucking with impressive dexterity. His acoustic guitar instrumentals are simply a wonder to watch, with both hands fluttering up and down the neck of the guitar, Porter creates a double guitar effect that audio will not do justice.
Porter's engaging personality, which is the same on stage as off, adds a charming element to his shows. Instead of relying on his prodigious guitar skills, Porter illuminates many of his songs with anecdotes about their origins or introduces them with a road story told with expert comedic timing. Taking the stage alone, Porter played a couple instrumentals, and a beautifully rendered "Paper Airplane," before Dave Adler, longtime member of the Willy Porter Band, joined him on keyboards. Adler allowed Porter to add nice instrumental flourishes to the conclusions of "Available Light" and "Moonbeam." For his finale, Porter concluded with his fractured take on "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," the theme from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Using a looping machine and his finely honed domestic observational skills, Porter goofily danced around and did some modified calisthenics while turning a cacophony of sound into a funky urban beat.
Porter's improvisational skills go beyond being able to craft a tune, extending into the realm of mental gymnastics that rival the best improv comics. Making a tune up on the spot, inserting topics and themes suggested by the audience has long been a staple of Porter's live shows. He could easily stall for time with some nifty guitar work, but he rarely does. On this night, he worked various random subjects into an impromptu song about former Mayor Giuliani's clean-up of New York City.
Porter inspires openness from his fans as they bring out of him; it's not uncommon for someone to simply start asking him questions between songs. When one such inquisitive fan started posing questions about "One More September," his heartwrenching post-September 11th ballad, Porter joked about not realizing it was time for the question and answer portion of the evening. Ever the consummate performer, Porter not only answered the question but went off his set list and playing a touching rendition of the sentimental favorite.