2014 was a year of milestones for Nils Lofgren, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band and released a nine-CD, one-DVD boxed set, Face the Music, documenting his 45 years as a solo artist and leader of his own band, Grin. This year, though, he’s back on the road — not with the E Street Band, which is taking some time off, but with his own duo shows. And he’s got four New Jersey shows coming up next month, at the Carl Pfeifer Performing Arts Stage of the Wyckoff Family YMCA, May 1; the Newton Theatre in Newton, May 3; the Levoy Theatre in Millville, May 8; and the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, May 9.
For more information on the tour or about Face the Music, visit NilsLofgren.com.
I talked to Lofgren, 63, in late March, in a phone interview from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., near Phoenix.
Q: So these shows coming up are all duo shows, right?
A: Yeah. Me and Greg Varlotta, who’s worked with me for a long time. They’re acoustic-based, but I play the electric guitar, and there’s a lot of jamming. I go over to the keyboards, which Greg plays — and guitars, too, and he’ll play trumpet occasionally — and tap-dance as a percussionist. So it’s quite a colorful night.
Q: How did you get to know him?
A: Well, I’ve been doing duo shows for decades, and gone through a variety of players. My brother Tommy did the first couple of hundred with me. I love to work with him, but he got some other jobs, and is not always available. Anyway, Greg was recommended through a local musician I greatly respect, and we’ve been working together for five or seven years. We just did a run in January in England, for three and a half weeks, so we’re in pretty good shape, and the show’s a pretty solid couple of hours. And usually, after every night, I’ll come out and sign CDs and T-shirts for people. It’s kind of a grass-roots, back-to-basics tour, which is really good for me, after a three-year break. I was busy, of course, with a 26-month run with the E Street Band. So I kind of come to the these shows of my own, not musically rusty, and kind of refreshed and rejuvenated and excited to get back to singing my own shows.
I put a 10-disc boxed set out (in 2014) called Face the Music, with the best of 45 years of recording. Two of the discs are 40 bonus tracks and unreleased tapes, going way back to my band Grin. I’d forgotten what a wealth of my own material I had to choose from, and kind of jogged my memory, and put some of the older songs that had been out of print for years in this show. It was just a great two-year project: Take the best of 45 years and get it out. You can get it at NilsLofgren.com or at Amazon.
Q: Can you give me an example or two of songs that have made it back into the show as a result of doing the boxed set?
A:. Well, for instance, a song that we played in England that I had kind of forgotten about, and really liked, and worked up: “Into the Night,” from the Wonderland (1983) album, was one of my favorites that I don’t recall ever playing (live). There’s a very dark bonus track called “Message” that was an 11-minute jam in the mid-’80s, in London — I did a B-side with Mark Brzezicki, the drummer of Big Country, and had a hellacious jam, and the tape ran out after 11 minutes. But that’s on the boxed set. There’s a song that comes and goes called “Here for You”; this is the original demo that I did, that I like. “Crooked Line,” that’s one of my favorites, just with all the political nightmare stuff on our planet: That was kind of a criticism of the insanity on our planet, back in ’91, on the Crooked Line album. So I dusted that off. Things like that. And I imagine, too … after 169 songs on the boxed set, there’s also a 20-song DVD with some rare footage … so, just looking at the glossary, and looking at these titles, it easily jogs my memory, of songs I haven’t played in a long time, to get back in the show.
There was an unusual Grin song, from the second Grin album, “Lost a Number,” a very strange love song with kind of a diabolical, haunted ending that I hadn’t played for a long time, too, and that’s in the set now.
Q: When you do one of these tours, does the setlist stay pretty much the same night to night, or is it really different?
A: It doesn’t change too much. I try to change four or five songs a night. Certainly, if I’m ever doing two nights in one place, I’ll change it a lot more than that. The improv guitar playing changes a lot. One of the voices I have, I just like to noodle and improv. I call it “going fishing.” So, the solos themselves … inside a song like “Keith Don’t Go,” I may do a two- to five-minute solo, depending on how I’m playing night to night. And things like that will change fairly dramatically inside of a song.
Also, I’ve had a web site for 20 years, kind of off the grid, and my wife Amy has really gotten me into Twitter the last couple of years, and Linda, who runs my web site, has a Facebook page, so occasionally I’ll take a request and try to honor that, from town to town, as I keep an eye on the social media, too.
Q: After the dates you have announced now, are there any plans beyond that, either recording or touring?
A: I’m kind of part-time keeping at (touring) on and off through the year, and then in November I’ve got a big month-long tour back in the U.K. We had a successful January there, and we’re going to go back and do a more extended version of it. I’m going to try to get back to Ireland, where I haven’t been in a while. So I’ll be spending some time on the road, and try to spend most of my time at home, organizing the (tour) runs. I’ve been gone for a long time, missing in action, with my family, so I’ve got these part-time runs — two weeks here, two weeks there — and then a big month in November in England. And then we’ll see what the next year brings. But it’s fun to get back to my own work, and sing my own songs.
Q: So I guess there’s no indication yet of when there might be more E Street activity?
A: No, there are no plans that I know of. Of course, when I book a run, I’ll just, as a courtesy, send the information on, and see if there are any conflicts. And there’s not. So I’ll just keep working. And, like any fan, I hope down the road, at some point, there’s another chapter. But to my knowledge there’s zero plans at the moment.
I’m hoping, too, as I do this work through the year, I’ll get back to … right now I’m working on some aches and pains. I’m 63. I’ve beat myself up a little bit in 46 years. So getting prepared for a tour now is a little more work than it used to be, as far as working out little injuries, and getting your mind right, memorizing the lyrics, all the details with the crew and the clubs. It’s fun but it’s challenging. So I haven’t really gotten deep into writing yet, and I’m hoping this year to start writing some new songs, and eventually towards a new album. My wife Amy thought the shows in England were going great, and encouraged us to record the last seven or eight shows, which we did. So we are looking at possibly putting together a more updated live version of the recent shows. But that’s a work in progress. It’s not a guarantee. But sometime this summer, late summer, you might see a new live record of the January tour in the U.K.
Q: On the last E Street tour, working with Tom Morello, he’s such a phenomenal guitarist, it must have been great just to be on tour with him, but at the same time, obviously, it cuts into how much each guitarist is featured in the show. What was your experience like working with him on the tour?
A: Well, I love Tom. Initially, he was a substitute, ’cause Steve had a commitment to film “Lilyhammer,” which everybody understood. Bruce decided … it was a run in Australia, I believe, and Tom stepped in, and was great.
Q: Was it hard for him to learn all those parts so quickly?
A: I had a wealth of information just by doing my work, in ’84, to integrate into the band quickly — my notebooks, and bootleg tapes, and all the homework I’ve done. And it’s kind of interesting because I’m the new guy in the band — a lot of the guys have been around a lot longer than me. They’re not really sitting around woodshedding old songs. But as the swing guy in the band … ’cause when Steve came back in ’99 … you know, you don’t need four guitar players, so I challenged myself to take some lessons and learn a little pedal steel and bottleneck and dobro and lap steel, just to throw some tools into the toolbox that nobody uses better than Bruce. The nice thing is, we feature songs. There’s no way I could become a virtuoso on any of those instruments, but if I became a good beginner, then I knew Bruce would make good use of those sounds. And he has.
I’m somebody that likes to maybe prepare and do homework and woodshed a little more, and Tom, of course, that’s all he was doing, because he got thrown into the fire with an impossible list of songs. So I’d go over (to the venue) early. I like to ease into the night, have a few hours by myself ahead of the band showing up. And Tom had his charts and notebooks. And at one point in Australia, I think, Max walked in on the two of us frantically doing homework, and said it looked like the Berklee School of Music: Notebooks and pages and bootleg tapes.
For me, with all those other instruments, it’s a little more challenging to remember what I played where. Some songs … I could go for 100 years and not play “Ramrod,” and if somebody called it, I wouldn’t be rusty. It’s just one of those blues greats that you just can’t get out of your body or system. You could play it in your sleep. Other songs are get away from you. Like “Outlaw Pete,” I started on lap steel, with some interesting effects that I played on the record. But then just to facilitate dozens of tracks on a piece — we don’t have dozens of guitars players — I felt like I needed to move over to, I think it was a Black Falcon (guitar) and do a wang bar Gretsch part, and then after a breakdown, I changed a third time to a gut string Takamine … to play all these different parts Bruce might put on a song. Between Bruce, me, Steve and whoever, you try to … that’s one of the fun things. You look at a piece and go, “Well, there’s 13 guitar tracks. We don’t need them all, but what are the most powerful four or five?” And then, obviously, if Bruce or Steve is singing, I’ve got to pick up their lines. You don’t sing and play counterpoint lines.
It’s pretty simple to figure it out. I’ve been doing it my whole life, and it’s fun. Then I use my own judgement, like: “Probably I ought to get rid of that guitar, and play the gut string at this point, or the wang bar.” And again, it’s a safe bet that Bruce has to sing the whole thing, so if there are some complex lines he overdubbed, he’s not going to be able to do that and sing. But my point is, because of all of the idiosyncracies of that kind of homework, and looking inside the song very deeply as an instrumentalist, I was a good guy for Tom to turn to for questions and answers.
We all helped each other out, because the last tour, especially the last six months, the improv was just completely off the hook. Probably my favorite night of the whole tour was somewhere in Australia. I think this was with Steve back; it’s much better to have Steve there, just for the vibe and the voice and the guitar playing, everything. But for me, personally, especially the voice. He and Bruce have that raunchy double duet thing that Keith and Mick have, that two raw R&B singers. Really, those are the only two pairs of guys who really have killed that, through the decades, and they’re still doing it.
And also, right now, I’m going out, I just played my own shows in England, and of course I played a lot of solos. I even once in a while would do my version of “Because the Night” in my own show, because of that big solo I put together at the end of the song. And that’s appropriate at my own shows. But I prefer to play rhythm.
Bruce will point to somebody at the end of a song … he’ll play the solo 40 nights in a row, and he’ll just point to you with no warning, to go out and play solos, or do round robins and give each other turns, and that’s all fine. But honestly, I embrace playing rhythm guitar, and little parts. I find that just as enjoyable as playing the lead. I don’t miss it at all. When you’ve got Steve and Tom, for instance, in the band, I enjoy playing less, and maybe playing a more idiosyncratic rhythm part. I don’t miss getting called out to run out in front of the E Street Band and solo. It’s fun, but it’s a bit nerve-racking.
One of the songs I always loved playing rhythm on was “Prove It All Night,” where I kind of get the shaking rhythm feel. I feel like I’m crawling inside Max’s hi-hat, just kind of sitting in the back of the beat, and then you get into this hypnotic space, where you feel like you’re this giant shaker, like it’s a percussion part, even though you’re playing chords. And you get into this almost hypnotic place, and you don’t have to come up for air for six minutes, which is really cool. Then the last couple of years, out of the blue, thank God I was watching, the solo would come, and Bruce would point at me. The first night I was like, “Jeez, what am I gonna do with an acoustic guitar?”
You don’t talk about it much, because you know Bruce will always keep his freedom to improv the shows, and there’s no point in even asking, ’cause he’s not sure how he’s gonna feel in the middle of a show, anyway. So at the breakdown, I would just get my tech to give me my Strat, and I might play rhythm on my electric for the remainder of the song 20 nights, and (Springsteen) might give Steve the solo, or play the solo. And sure enough, one night with no warning, he points at me, and now I’ve got my Strat on, so I hit my overdrive and play the solo. It’s just very exciting, fun stuff, where I feel I’ve got an enormous amount of freedom to handle my own instruments, the way I want, and put what I want into the songs.
It remains, still, one of the spectacular jobs, and is every bit as fulfilling as being the bandleader. But I embrace it all. It’s all part of what I do. And now I’m the bandleader.
But speaking of Tom Morello … probably my favorite line of the last tour was in Australia, after one night of just insane improv, when Bruce went off the setlist — he changed the opening to the show on the way to the stage, which happens — but he just went wild with improv, and it was a very seat-of-your-pants, hang-on-for-your-life kind of show, and I was just giving Tom any tips I could while I was figuring out what I was supposed to do, and trying to help my guitar tech figure out what instrument to give me, because I travel with over 50 guitars, and usually there’s about 32 out and set up every night, just to allow for the improv, and not to be caught off guard. But it was great, because Tom walked up to me in a moment when Bruce was doing an opening by himself, and we had 20 seconds in the dark, and he hit my arm and, it was hilarious, because he said, “Hey, I just want you to know that this is the first song in an hour and 13 minutes that I know or recognize.” And I just thought, that summed it all up. It takes a special musician to be able to stand next to Bruce for over an hour and not know what the hell you’re playing. And somehow make it work, or fake it.
Q: When you were talking about playing new instruments, I was reminded of when you started playing with Neil Young, you played piano even though you weren’t primarily a piano player.
A: In my boxed set, I write a lot of stories. Dave Marsh insisted I write the blow-by-blow, track-by-track history, which is quite long, and he edited it with me, and the story benefits from that a lot. He wrote a beautiful foreword, too. But one of the stories I remember is, as a classical accordion player for 10 years, I entered contests. And you have to play every note as written, perfectly. There’s no improv with the notes.
I was just a beginning blues guitarist, and I was taken by the power of the improvisational nature of it. I snuck backstage in the dressing room of the Fillmore East. I was 17. And Eric Burdon and the Animals was playing. I just came with some English guy I met in the street who knew them. And I was sitting in the corner, watching the drummer play blues guitar with the bass player, on tiny little amps, and Eric Burdon was singing this soulful blues with an African-American, fabulous female vocalist. And I was just sitting there, taking this in. And the drummer kept staring at me. He had met me through their buddy Phillip, this Englishman who brought me in. And finally, he just saw me eyeing the guitar, and he said, “Do you want to play guitar?”
I was thinking to myself, “I don’t have a thumb pick.” But then I thought, “Jeez, you’re a runaway, you’re in Greenwich Village, you snuck into the Fillmore East. You’re here to try to make your way as a professional musician. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re unemployed. You gotta just say yes to every opportunity. Otherwise go back to school, get your diploma and go to college, and give up on this dream.” So, I didn’t know what to do, but I said yes. He handed me this black Les Paul. I ripped the top off of a soda can, and I don’t play with a flat pick. And I’m sitting there playing what I think are very clumsy funky blues licks. And somehow Eric Burdon keeps singing with this soulful woman, and the bass player keeps playing bass out of a little Pignose amp. And it works.
At an early age, I recognized that this thing that I fell in love with … it’s okay to be rough, it’s okay to be raw. There can be rough edges if you’re down in it, emotionally, with some degree of technical expertise. There’s room for a lot of rough, frayed edges. And that was a thing that I embraced and loved instantly through rock ‘n’ roll and the blues that I discovered through the Beatles and the Stones, and all their heroes, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I mean, I watched Muddy Waters do the same rough edges a lot better than I did, at the Cellar Door (in Washington, D.C.), with two shows. I snuck backstage, and he let me watch him play cards for an hour, standing in the corner. I watched Neil Young play there. I met him there and established a friendship there by sneaking backstage and asking for advice.
So fast forward a couple of years: I’m 18 years old, and we’re doing After the Gold Rush, and I’ve already told Neil and (producer) David Briggs, “I’m not a professional pianist.” And they both reminded me, ’cause they were familiar with my history, “You won contests on classical accordion. We just need a simple few parts, and we think that you can figure it out.” And once again, just like learning in ’99 all these other instruments, it’s not about what you can’t play, and challenging yourself to be a virtuoso that it would take me 20 years to become, and I’m not gonna become. I learned, and I knew, very viscerally, that if I just have a few simple parts that work and feel right, it’s gonna work, because my ideas are sound and they’re borne of a love of great rock ‘n’ roll. As a professional musician, you play inside what you know.
I mean, my right hand wasn’t bad at all (on the piano). It was just bigger keys (than the accordion). And my left hand was very simple. It actually was a great combination, because you had Ralphie Molina, one of the most solid, simple, committed drummers on the planet. He had a long history with Neil and me as a friend. And then Greg Reeves was kind of the James Jamerson school of very colorful bass playing: Not overplaying, but just a lot of color and movement that added a lot more from the bottom. So it wasn’t necessary that my left hand was busy, like what Roy Bittan does, or Dr. John, or any of the great piano players. I could be very basic and simple and very solid and rhythmic, and stay out of the way, and my right hand had a little bit of finesse to it, and then Neil was on top with a lot of color with his guitar, or I played rhythm guitar on “Tell Me Why,” and he and I sang that live together. And on “Till the Morning Comes,” I played some rhythm, too.
Q: Do you do much on the local Phoenix music scene? Is there even much of a music scene there?
A: Yeah, there’s a great music scene here, and once in a while … there’s Cattle Track Galleries, which is an art gallery right down the road, and they have shows once in a while. We’ll do some jam sessions there, but it’s very low-key. But honestly, I’ve been gone … for 46 years, I’ve been gone half the time. When I have a night off, I want to spend it with my wife and my dogs and my family here, because I’ve been missing in action. I’m not really looking to get out and jam, for fun.
One of the beauties of being around for 46 years is, I’ve gotten quite good at doing live shows. The only real downside is, you have to leave home, and I’ve done so much of that, that probably other than these shows that are on the books … usually if we’re going out, it’s just to have a nice dinner and then get back to my dog pack.