Nils Lofgren talks switching from solo star to member of the E Street Band
Nils Lofgren is a guitar-slinging road warrior. In addition to a string of fantastic solo albums and his work with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Lofgren has been a member of the E Street Band for the last 30 years.
Were there any doubt as to his work ethic, he interrupted a tour promoting a live album he made with Greg Varlotta — UK2015 Face the Music Live — to take his place alongside Bruce Springsteen on his new River tour.
I spoke with Lofgren by phone about his new live album and his work with the Boss ahead of Thursday night’s show at the Sprint Center.
The Pitch: Would you say your new live album is a die-hard fan album?
Nils Lofgren: I would just says it’s a great representation of what I’ve been doing for 10 years with Greg Varlotta, which we had commemorated in a live recording. It was my wife’s idea, last January in England. The idea was that, when people came to the show last October and November in England and Ireland and said “Can we get the show we just saw?” we would have something to hand to them.
I’m really proud of it. It’s a great representation of what we’ve been doing with my catalog.
It’s a great representation of the faith you have in your fans and that your fans have in you that you can start the album with an eight-and-a-half-minute track.
The show starts that way. I had gotten this harp from [my wife] Amy a few Christmases ago, and I was baffled and stymied, like, “What do I do with this? I don’t know how to play this.” To honor the instrument, it’s like an exercise bike – you either hang clothes on it, or you do something with it! [laughs] So, I picked out a birthday song for her — very primitive — and recorded it, and then I learned how to play the opening of “Too Many Miles,” then wrote a song, “Dream Big,” on it, which appears on the Old School record.
I figured it was good to start with something more intimate while people were easing into things, then kick into some screaming electric blues to wake ’em up and warn ’em about the yin and yang of the night.
In terms of yin and yang, did you pick the songs on the album in order to have a definitive version of how they are now, and to document how they’ve evolved?
No, it was a complete accident. As always when I’m performing, the bottom line is always what’s best for the audience tonight. What am I engaged by? We’re supposed to record this song, but I’m not really into it, but we’ll play it anyway? I don’t do that.
We’d gotten through half the tour before she [my wife] even mentioned [recording] it. It was the last thing on our minds. We had no intent of recording it. I was switching from E Street back into being a band leader, and I was deep into that focus with no overview from an audience’s perspective.
Amy was out there, and she said, “Look, these are the best shows I’ve seen you do in 20 years. You need to record this.” That’s how it started, and I was very grateful. I didn’t realize that Greg and I had been working together for 10 years, and we certainly didn’t have a commemoration of it in any recording, so I’m glad we got it done.
We just picked the songs, and that’s how the show went. We’d change three or four songs a night, but that’s how it would go, in that order. We tailored the CD to run just like a show did.
The songs’ introductions, where you give an explanation about each, really gives it a “you were there” sort of feeling.
I tell a lot of stories onstage that people like and Amy started encouraging me to talk more. I always felt that it broke up the flow, but over the last few tours, I’ve realized that I do have a lot of good stories, and people really appreciate it. We could’ve lost two songs and had more talking on the record, but because it’s a record — no matter how good a story I tell — one of my good songs should be a little higher up on the list.
What is the process like switching between band leader and member of the E Street Band?
It’s a switch I know how to flip, but it takes some work. Usually, what I’ll do is get two or three long sessions with Greg at my home in Arizona and just slowly play through the show. I have a different set of foot pedals that I don’t remember where I push where. The funny thing is with Bruce, is that I’ll spend three and a half hours a night where I’ll go up and sing, and when I’m done singing, I back away from the mic, and Bruce takes over, ’cause he’s singing the lead.
When I start back solo, I’ll sing a verse, then step back, forgetting completely that there’s a second verse! It’s like, “Oh, yeah: I’m singing every lyric,” or finger-picking, or playing lead — it’s kind of a constant, always-on thing, as opposed to the E Street Band. It’s such a big, beautiful band that there’s moments where I don’t hear myself. I just shut my guitar off and sit there and listen to the band groove on, and then I go, “I feel like I’m gonna come in on this next verse,” and I will.
That’s the main difference: being the bandleader, and kind of being on from when you walk out until it’s over, as opposed to being in a great band where you just groove along with everyone until the time is right to jump back in.
Best seat in the house, huh?
I would say so! It’s a bit of work — bit of homework — but it’s definitely best seat in the house. Of course, Max [Weinberg, drummer] up there might disagree, up there on that throne looking down at everybody. [laughs] But I have a lot of fun out there. The show does evolve. There’s a lot of room for improv inside each song, which I’ll take advantage of. To the audience, it’s like, “Oh, he’s just playing ‘Badlands.’ He does it the same every night.” I never play it the same every night, but no one would know that, because what’s coming from my guitar part feels the same. The emotional content should do the job from each instrument.