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Rock The House 'Til Its Closing: Nils Lofgren Discusses 50 Years On Stage

Tuesday, 08 May 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Cristina Arrigoni

Rock ‘n’ roll would be nothing without a little mythmaking, and Nils Lofgren’s career lends itself to it.

These days he can usually be found pinwheeling through solos as a member of the E-Street Band, adding improvisational flair to Bruce Springsteen’s marathon stadium spectacles. But back in the late ‘60s he was a Washington, D.C. kid who wanted his band, Grin, to make it.

Eyes opened by the Beatles and the British Invasion, Lofgren shifted focus from classical accordion to blues guitar after a few lessons at home from his brother, Tommy. By the time they started picking up pace in the city’s bar scene, Grin were a rugged power-pop trio driven by keen songcraft and Lofgren’s burgeoning appreciation for melody.

“Our intent was to get a record deal and do original material,” he says. “There were a lot of places that would let you play your original music, as long as once in a while you played a popular song of the day. It could just be a great song, it didn’t have to be pop bubblegum stuff. At an early age we did some auditions in New York City, kinda struck out, and decided to go to L.A.”

First, though, Lofgren shopped around for a little advice on their next move. What followed is a story he has told a thousand times, but that doesn’t lessen its sense of serendipity. Neil Young, midway through a stellar run of early albums, was backstage at the Cellar Door club when Lofgren approached him. He listened to some Grin songs and told the kid to look him up when they reached the coast. “We did, and he and David Briggs helped us out a lot,” Lofgren says.

Briggs would become Grin’s producer, and a mentor, while Lofgren’s orbit swung closer to Young’s when he was asked to sit in for the recording of 1970’s ‘After The Gold Rush’. He played guitar and piano on the LP, a stone-cold classic, before he turned 20. “It was a beautiful adventure,” he says. “All in all, it just started there.”  

Lofgren’s UK tour, which begins on May 14 in Guildford, marks 50 years on the road. At this remove, his back catalogue stands out as an eclectic one. Acting as bookends are four Grin records and some lively work with the latter-day E-Street Band. Then you have ‘After The Gold Rush’, another seminal Young LP in ‘Tonight’s The Night’, and the first Crazy Horse album. But it's shot through with a rich seam of solo work.

This is where the spotlight should linger for a minute. It’s easy to get caught up with the big names that Lofgren has worked with (as well as Young and Springsteen, he co-wrote a number of songs alongside Lou Reed for 1979’s muscular pop-rocker ‘Nils’ and is a semi-regular collaborator with Ringo Starr) but his early solo records, in particular, stand up mighty well on their own.

Released in 1975, his self-titled bow is a taut, poppy slice of west coast ephemera, while he followed it with ‘Cry Tough’, a more musically expressive but similarly hook-happy collection. In the early ‘80s, ‘Wonderland’ found him playing with a trio again on songs that bring to mind ‘Southern Accents’-era Tom Petty.

Like Grin’s albums they were well received, yet they didn’t break any sales records. By the time his debut hit shelves Lofgren had already come a long way from striking out in New York but, to keep the baseball analogy going, he was stuck playing in Triple A. Talking to him about that time now, though, recalls a lyric from the ‘Nils’ album: “I’ll cry tomorrow, I ain’t got time today.”

“At the end of the day, you make records to share with people, at least we did,” he says. “We were, of course, very disappointed after four albums that Grin didn’t continue on recording, because we had no sales to speak of that led to money for the companies. That’s the name of the game. We couldn’t really hold it against them, but we were very sad about that.

"The solo records I made, I made them to share. Would I have liked more people to have heard them and enjoyed them? Of course. But whatever the journey was, it’s gotten me here to today. I have to accept that. I tend not to want to look through all the business stories about the music industry. At the end of the day, it’s a little simpler and safer to, it’s not even blame, just put it on yourself.  Like, ‘Well, I have a chance to keep getting better.’”

As a performer, Lofgren is something of a shapeshifter. His guitar work has earned him a reputation as a fine off-the-cuff player, but his recorded output is overwhelmingly song-focused. He is currently putting together a new album alongside the rhythm section that rounded out his ‘Wonderland’ band - drummer Andy Newmark and bassist Kevin McCormick - that he promises is “more electric-based”. They might even tour the thing. But he also keeps his hand in with a project called Blind Date Jam: a freeform happening stemming from between-take improv that the audience doesn’t always get to see.

“I was a classical accordion player from age six to 15,” he says. “I was always learning these big classical songs, and the melody, and the structure. It was a great musical backdrop for when I just picked up the blues guitar as a hobby in our home. It was the Beatles that got me off of classical, because they had some more sophisticated melodies over chords, they had these beautiful harmonies, mixed with this gutter soul of very anguished, talented, emotional singers. That combination opened the floodgates.

“I have always been song-based. I’m grateful to have a reputation as a guitar player, but it was a happy offshoot of focusing on writing songs and having a band to play and perform them. When I picked up the blues guitar, one of the beauties of it was improvising. You didn’t have to write the written note. 

"I never really learned to read guitar music. I can read a chord chart if it’s not jazz. I grew up with George Harrison, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Albert King, BB King, later Stevie Ray Vaughan. On the records you have a solo but it’s not like some 20 minute extended jam. Live, though, a lot of my songs I would naturally stretch out on guitar.”

Lofgren’s latest UK run arrives off the back of some good notices for his recent reunion with Young and Crazy Horse and is set to take him to some stately halls. He will hit the stage in a stripped-back duo with Greg Varlotta, offering a different feel to the last few times we’ve seen him on these shores as one of Springsteen’s trusted lieutenants.

When he joined the E-Street Band, in 1984, Lofgren was stepping into shoes recently vacated by Steven Van Zandt, a musician seemingly inextricably linked to the blockbuster post-’Born To Run’ years. At that critical moment he had several things on his side: he came from the same world as the rest of the group and he had a romantic’s eye for rock ‘n’ roll, but he offered a different, almost freewheeling style.

In Springsteen’s recent autobiography, Lofgren is introduced early on when he steps up to follow a set by Steel Mill at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, as part of a Bill Graham showcase. He’s immediately painted as as a guy who can hang with the future Boss, who writes that Grin “rocked the house ‘til its closing”.

When Little Steven returned to the fray (along with everyone else) in 1999, Lofgren doubled down on offering something new. He took on lap and pedal steel, started picking up a Dobro. Discussing his work alongside Springsteen and Van Zandt, Lofgren again returns to song-based ideas as the common thread between them as bandleaders: “It all helps.”

“When you really engage in a performance, and you look at your bandmates and your leader, you see all this potential,” he says. “You get ideas for how you can contribute and see how a great bandleader, whether it’s Ringo, or Neil, or Bruce, will take your ideas and send them in a different direction or tweak it a bit or just leave it be. But they’re grateful for the input, as am I with the musicians I play with. I’ve been blessed to be in great bands where the leader has an idea but they don’t micromanage what you do, because they want you to contribute yourself.”

He adds: “Bruce, I think, is as great a bandleader as there’s ever been. But of course he comes to that job with the same kind of innate passion for live performing which we all have, with a batch of songs that rivals the best ever, and a great R&B voice that can go folk or country or rock. He’s got a lot of special tools.

“Being a bandleader, a writer, an arranger, doesn’t hurt me and Steve’s contribution either. We’re listening to the song. Everyone in the band has great ideas, but if your ideas pop up and they’re song-driven they can be a little more useful than just instrumentals, or thinking instrumentally. The band is extraordinary. Like everyone else I’m a big fan. I used to buy tickets to see them play back in the ‘70s.”

Five decades is a long time. Lofgren stumbled across the landmark while sketching out his tour plans, but this is a welcome victory lap. Look out for those solo records next time you’re confronted by a vinyl rack.

“Here I am 50 years later,” he says. “There have been some rough times, but when you look at the musicians, and all the people we’ve lost, all the heartbreak and tragedy that’s in every business, including showbusiness, and all the good players who can’t get a record deal or can’t get a good job, to be headed out to sing my own music, for people who keep showing up, is a beautiful thing.”

Nils Lofgren Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon May 14 2018 - GUILDFORD G Live
Tue May 15 2018 - BASINGSTOKE Anvil
Wed May 16 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Town Hall
Thu May 17 2018 - LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Sat May 19 2018 - HARROGATE Royal Hall
Sun May 20 2018 - EDINBURGH Queens Hall
Mon May 21 2018 - GATESHEAD Sage
Tue May 22 2018 - MANCHESTER Bridgewater Hall
Thu May 24 2018 - CAMBRIDGE Cambridge Corn Exchange
Fri May 25 2018 - TUNBRIDGE WELLS Assembly Hall
Sat May 26 2018 - WORCESTER Forum Theatre
Mon May 28 2018 - LONDON Barbican Hall
Tue May 29 2018 - NORWICH Theatre Royal Norwich
Wed May 30 2018 - ST ALBANS Alban Arena
Thu May 31 2018 - CARDIFF St David's Hall

Click here to compare & buy Nils Lofgren Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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