Nils Lofgren didn’t become a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band until 1984, but his reputation as a virtuoso guitarist capable of summoning volcanic moments on stage was solidified long before The Boss ever came calling. He joined Neil Young’s band at 18, toured extensively throughout the world to promote 1973’s “Tonight’s the Night,” and released four albums with Grin between 1971 and 1974, the first of which remains an unheralded gem if one ever manages to scrounge up an original vinyl copy. His dexterous playing style is watermarked by an unusual thumb technique he adopted after discovering a thumb pick inside his father’s guitar case as a kid, and, in a perfect world, his name would be universally synonymous with more than just his role as rock ‘n’ roll’s consummate sideman.
But that’s what makes Lofgren great. He’s as humble as he is talented and exhibits no qualms about letting his guitar do most of the talking.
I say most of the talking, because I had the privilege of speaking with him recently about his latest live release, “UK2015 Face the Music Tour,” and why playing The River front to back every night has become such an exuberant experience. Whether he’s tearing it up out on the road with collaborator Greg Varlotta or attacking an E Street solo at the behest of his fearless leader, Lofgren remains a must-see performer whose ability ages better than an unopened 1961 bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc. He’s essentially the band’s version of BASF in that he didn’t help make any studio material prior to 1987’s “Tunnel of Love,” but he has been making it all sound better for the last 32 years
Normally, I would advise against anyone indulging the price gouging of the secondary market, but Thursday’s evening with Nils, Bruce, Steven, Patti, Max, Garry, Roy, Soozie, Jake and Charlie might be worth making an exception for.
David Hens: How did you decide which shows to use for your latest live album?
Nils Lofgren: Well, it wasn’t really my idea at all. After the 26-month run with E Street wrapped up, I went back to doing my own shows and we planned a trip to England, which is a place I love playing. I’ve been going there since 1973 on the “Tonight’s the Night” tour with Neil Young and my buddy, Greg Varlotta, who’s been working with me for 10 years now on a very colorful duo show, and I decided to deliver these special, inspired shows everywhere we went. It was my wife Amy who about halfway through said that they were the best shows she had ever seen me do and that I should record them. The nice thing about technology is that our soundman, Martin Warden, mixed the album using a box that he can multi track to, so it was almost secondary in that he did it without even thinking about it. When I got home, I reviewed the tracks on seven shows and there were six different nights that we got the best takes from. I wanted the setlist for ‘Live in the UK’ to run just like the show would, which meant that the up and down, the subject matter, and the overall feel of the material we covered was similar. It ended up being a very accurate snapshot. After the show ends, Amy sells the t-shirts and posters she personally designed on the tour and then I go out to sign for about an hour-and-a-half, and we had a lot of people asking how they could get the show they just saw. I wanted to be able to hand it to them and hats off to Amy for making it such a great success. The entire thing has a very grass roots feel to it and it’s a live record I’m very proud of.
DH: When you’re in the middle of a show, do you ever get the feeling that something special is happening and you’d like to find a way to capture it?
NL: Sometimes, something will happen where I feel like I’m deeper in the zone and things are flowing a little easier. It’s still a joy, but it’s still work too. The energy can sometimes be more effortless when you have an audience just throwing a wave of excitement into the music that goes way beyond the normal night. For me, it might not always be something specific that I’m doing to make a particular show stand out, because the crowd can just be really digging it. Sometimes it’s kinda like the show we put together is working really well and we get an extra burst of energy from the group of people we’re in front of, because they’re less inhibited or able to find a deeper appreciation for what they’re hearing. That’s the beauty of a live thing, you know? You try to put a good show together and you’re willing to improv or change things on the fly. I call it ‘going fishing,’ because some nights I’ll catch some ideas that are good and roll with them. It’s all a beautiful thing and there are so many elements, but they’re all really born out of the energy that the audience throws at you and the expectations they have. It’s a pain in the ass going to a show, so to have hundreds of people sitting there in a little place ready for you to be good is very exciting, especially given that I’m starting my forty-eighth year here on the road.
DH: Do you ever find that people are surprised by how versatile of an artist you are if they’re only familiar with your work with the E Street Band?
NL: Yeah, you know one of the fun things at the merch table after the show is that someone always comes over to say how they took a chance on the show, because they like Bruce and wanted to check me out on my own. They usually say that they had no idea I wrote and sang songs, so they’re going to buy my CD. That’s always pleasant to hear.
DH: As a guitar player myself, I’ve always been impressed by your picking technique. How have you worked to develop that through the years?
NL: You know, accidentally when I was a kid I was a classical accordion player and my dad had a beat-up old guitar lying around the house. He and my mom didn’t play per se, but they loved music and they danced all the time to the old-time swing music. They encouraged us musically, so my brother Tommy started playing guitar and he showed me a few chords. There was an old folk pick in the case and I’m left-handed, so I learned how to play right-handed with a thumb pick. I was awful for nine months until I started getting the hang of it and then some local kids started saying you have to play rock ‘n’ roll with a flat pick. I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t bear to suck for another nine months, so I decided to stick with the thumb pick. Accidentally, it led to finger picking and I just did it kind of on my own, but I wasn’t real good at it. I took briefly a few months of guitar lessons as a teenager. I was probably about 15 and there was a guy, Scottie Ball, who played bass with me in my first solo band and showed me some licks. You know, some lead licks on an electric. There was a guy named Bill Singer who was teaching at Kensington Music and we took ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ by Chet Atkins picks The Beatles where you have a bass line with your thumb pick and you finger pick a completely counter melody on top while keeping them completely separate. It must have taken me months to learn that three-minute song and some weeks I could barely get through a couple bars. But once I was at the lesson, Bill Singer encouraged me to make more out of my picking and finger picking. That kind of sent me off to the races and, to this day, it’s a normal part of my playing. I play so much alone or with Greg, so I always want to cover a lot of territory.
DH: How easy is it for you transition back into your own material once an E Street Band tour wraps up?
NL: Well, it’s always a bit of a shock, but I do come back to my own music excited about it. After the 26-month Wrecking Ball/High Hopes tour, I went back to playing with Greg and I initially felt like a fish out of water, because it’s a different headspace to be a band leader. It’s something I’ve done probably 70 percent of the last 40 or 50 years even, so it comes back and I’ve also learned that you don’t want to just jump into the pool. You want to get back into it gradually. Greg and I will get together in Arizona to practice for a couple days. Nothing too crazy. Just enough to play through the show and see what we can do. I have a different pedal board as well, so I do enough preparation to make it happen smoothly. Getting out in front of the crowd is 90 percent, because, once you feel the energy, it all comes kinda falling back. How to react, how to sing, how to play. The best place for me to learn, by far, is in front of an audience and that’s still the case.
DH: What was your reaction when you first heard that Bruce was taking the band out on the road again?
NL: I was pleasantly surprised. Amy and I were on my UK tour just doing our thing and enjoying playing for the great people of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales when I got the call. Instead of just Saturday Night Live, there was a plan to play 20 or so shows to promote The River. I was very surprised and grateful for another chapter of E Street. Certainly, my intent is to make up all the shows I had to cancel, but all the club owners have been very understanding about it. I plan to reschedule all those that I had to move because of The River tour.
DH: What do you think it is about The River that makes it such a powerful album to be played in its entirety during the course of a show?
NL: Well, I like playing all of Bruce’s records, but there’s something that Bruce talks about each night regarding The River being his first adult take on life as a rocker. He realized that he was a young adult and couldn’t go back to being a teenager. He’s always been a brilliant lyricist, but, with that double album, he’s able to cover an enormous amount of territory. Listen to the thing. Laughing, crying, joy, despair and everything in between. It’s all covered there and it just weaves back and forth in a really beautiful way. By the time we’re done, it’s a hell of a statement. I remember when I was in L.A. and Bruce invited me along to listen to the final mix of The River album, so I got to hear it well before it was released. The band was able to get the sizzle and electricity of their live shows into that record. To get out and play it every night and then have an hour-and-a-half to play the hits is a real joy. Look, it’s a rare band with a great history and I’m thrilled to be a part of it any time there’s an E Street show.
DH: One of the moments from the hits portion of the set that is attracting a lot of attention is your solo on “Because the Night.” What is it about that song that makes it so fun to play?
NL: Well, that’s one of my favorite songs ever. It’s got such a dark sentiment about love and commitment along with music that is just so powerful. Of course, when you put it to a great rock beat, it becomes major. I remember way back on The Rising tour that Bruce probably played the solo 40 nights in a row and then with no notice or discussion he literally just turned his head and pointed at me. So I took off and this went on for a few nights until it got longer and longer, because, you know, I’d look at Bruce to wrap it up and he’d be like, ‘No, play more, play more.’ It got so long that I took the time to create some touchstones, so, if it did start carrying on longer, I could move from theme to theme to theme and thing would keep growing. After a three-minute song like that with the band, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be sent out front to play for two minutes. I mean, he wants it to be substantive. The band has so much energy and I’m a good player, but it almost became two minutes of jamming that didn’t rise as I felt it should. The advantage of having the freedom in this band that we all do is that we can put touchstones together. Now, it’s a pretty good solo that can still grow through that minute-and-a-half or two minutes or whatever Bruce wants it to be. I’m honored that he’s still allowing me to take a shot at it and I put a lot of work into making it something special after such a great song.
DH: How has the reduced touring lineup this time around impacted that band’s dynamic?
NL: You know, it’s funny, because Amy and I got to be really close with the singers and the horn players. They’re all wonderful people. I do miss the personalities, but I’m loving all the people I’ve known for 32 years on the road. There’s an added space now that I realize is important for presenting The River, because it’s putting a little more notice on all of us to be present and take advantage of the air there. The bottom line is that the leader has to decide what he wants to do and, right now, we’re presenting this beautiful double record and everyone is clicking. After that, Bruce has a few hundred great songs to choose from for a hits portion, so I’m just loving being out there and following him wherever he takes me. It always works if you keep your head in the game. I know what it’s like to look at the next song on my setlist and not feel it, and that’s why I love the improvisation of the E Street Band. Bruce may have a better idea for the show, so, even if he was willing to do a request, I don’t think I would want to change anything. I prefer that he just picks what works for each moment as it comes.
DH: Once The River tour is in the books, I know that you’ll be continuing your solo trek. How long will that be going on for?
NL: I’ll certainly get home and rest before getting back out there, because I want to get my mind, body, and spirit back in shape. My intent after that will be to make up all the shows I cancelled and I’ve also started writing again, but I don’t really try to do both out here. We’ve had the best reviews and crowd response ever for my solo tour, so we’re excited to continue on. I had no idea it would lead to a live record, but Amy said that they were best shows I’d ever done and we ended up recording the entire second half of the tour. It’s been a blessing that after 47 years on the road, people keep showing up and that’s really the best review. I feel like I’m always getting better and it’s very gratifying to be talk to fans after the show about anything they like. They look you in the eye and they tell you what they liked or didn’t like about what you did, which is very powerful and helpful.
Nils Lofgren’s “UK2015 Face the Music Tour” is available now on CD. A 45-year, 10-disc limited edition retrospective box set entitled “Face the Music” is also available for anyone looking to delve deeper into his illustrious catalog. Visit www.nilslofgren.com for details on both releases as well as the latest updates regarding his rescheduled solo dates.
If you were lucky enough to score a ticket, you’ll be seeing Nils, Bruce, and the rest of the mighty E Street Band crossing “The River” at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center on Thursday, Feb. 25. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and is sold out.