Gig preview: Nils Lofgren at Leeds City Varieties

Nils Lofgren. Picture: Jo Lopez
Nils Lofgren. Picture: Jo Lopez
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For musicians of a certain vintage, the CD box set is a familiar means of reviewing a lengthy career. Nils Lofgren’s new one, Face The Music, however is more compendious than most.

Comprising ten discs – nine of them CDs plus one DVD – it offers an extensive insight into the early recordings and solo work by a guitarist widely hailed for his contributions to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen’s bands.

At 63, Lofgren found the process of assembling the box set nostalgic.

“Very much so,” he says. “I tend to look forward quite a bit and I basically wasn’t quite aware of the scope of the work for 45 years, so it was really a wonderful year and a half of work thanks to Fantasy Records.”

That was especially the case with the music he wrote for his first band, the heavy rock group Grin, in the late Sixties and his solo records from the Seventies and Eighties, much of which is now “out of print”.

In all, he says, there are “169 different songs and two bonus tracks, 40 rarities and basement tapes and unreleased songs from Grin to my solo career...another 20 songs on a DVD, some rarities”. His wife Amy “was kind of the art director with the company’s girls who did a great job for a year and a half”.

“There’s a lot of music that’s been extinct for decades and now has seen the light of day,” he says. “I’m very grateful.”

Though renowned for his guitar-playing skills, it was not the first instrument that Lofgren learned to play.

“I lived on the south side of Chicago for my first eight years. At five years of age I asked for accordion lessons, it seemed like every kid on the block played accordion, it was a popular instrument in my parents’ culture – my dad’s Swedish, my mom’s Italian. We were raised American and my dad came over at three and grew up as a citizen but they financed ten years of lessons and after the waltzes and polkas I moved into classical training and some very serious studies. It was an enormous ten-year backdrop in education in music once I picked up the blues guitar.”

It was British beat groups that converted him to the joys of rock’n’roll.

“Basically I discovered all of it through The Beatles, the Beatles and Stones. Initially The Beatles had some more sophistication and harmonies and chords that as a classical musician caught my eye in addition to probably turning 12 or 13 and emotionally starting to be open to what they were doing. Really the floodgates to all of it opened with The Beatles and Stones and what we call the British Invasion.

“Through them I discovered Stax-Volt, Motown, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, BB King, Albert King, all the blues greats.

“At that point in the Sixties it was a great point to be a teenager. There was an explosion of incredible music all over the globe, in particular of course England and America. America had been at it a while and we didn’t even know it. Thanks to the Beatles and Stones I discovered my own musical heritage here in the US.”

In his mid-teens Lofgren befriended the Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. They hooked up in Los Angeles where, Lofgren recals “he took us under his wing with his producer David Briggs, who moved me into his home and produced all the Grin records and my solo records – he was our main mentor and we learned invaluable lessons for many years.”

Lofgren played on two of Young’s classic albums – After the Gold Rush (“a very earthy, funky record recorded with a remote truck in Neil’s home at Topanga”) and Tonight’s the Night.

“It was a very dark, kind of wake album,” he remembers of the latter. “A couple of friends we’d lost – Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry – and then of course that was the era where a lot of people started dying of drugs and alcohol abuse and that was a tragic period, but it was kind of a healing, commiserative record, it was helpful to process all that death.”

Throughout the Seventies and Eighties Lofgren made a series of solo albums, two of which grazed the US top 40. Though disappointed they didn’t do better, he’s philosophical about the upshot.

“Yeah, I had some airplay with a handful of songs that I of course wish was greater because you want to share your music, move into theatres, bring your own PA and lights, control the environment more for the audience, but at the same time I had all the other career I would not have had with hit records with Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Patti Scialfa.

“I love being in bands and I’m good at it. I’ve had a chance to be in spectacular groups and I learned at 18 and After the Gold Rush it’s kind of nice to go to work with great players and songs and not be the boss every day of your life. A lot of solo artists don’t see it that way but for me it was healthy and it remains so musically.”

In 1984 he found a new lease of life in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The pair had known each other for more than a decade – Lofgren recalls Grin once auditioned with Springsteen’s then group Steel Mill in 1970 hoping to get an “opening act job” from US promoter Bill Graham. Lofgren became a “big fan”, recalling that “through the Seventies and Eighties I’d go see him play whenever I could”.

“A very long story cut to ’84 when Steve [Van Zandt, the E Street’s guitarist] went and did his solo work, which is great, and I’m not sure what happened before or after but I’d been up to see him a few months earlier, just for a weekend, we jammed in clubs and just talked a lot and I did share with him through the years how exciting it was for me to be in a great band and I didn’t have to be the leader, I’d follow Neil Young. I think he filed that away and when he needed a guitarist I got a call...We spent the first two days jamming in New Jersey and it felt good, just another musical gift to be asked to join that band – that was 30 years ago last May.”

This year The E Street Band was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

“That was wonderful,” Lofgren reflects. “It was bittersweet because my bandmates in particular were very upset that it took them so long and we all got upset when we started burying each other – we lost Danny [Federici], we lost Clarence [Clemons]. They really should have done that before those guys passed away. It was still an honour for the band, well overdue and deserved. It was great to go to New York and Brooklyn for a couple of days. My wife Amy is from West Orange, New Jersey, right outside the city, we have a lot of friends there in and out of the band so it was a beautiful few days - hectic, crazy and a long overdue honour that we were happy to participate in.”

Nils Lofgren plays at Leeds City Varieties on January 22, 8pm, from £29.10. www.cityvarieties.co.uk