Nils Lofgren E-Street Man & More!

By Carol Anne Szel

Full disclosure.  I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band fanatic.  Been seeing them in concert for 40 years, and dozens of times on the barrage of tours since the beginning.

Okay, now that that’s done, I have some amazing news.  I was able to sit down with E-Street Band legend Nils Lofgren before they headed out on Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 The River tour, and what unfolded was raw, truthful, honest, and enlightening talk about Bruce, the road, the process, and more.

Nils released his solo album; a live cd entitled UK 2015 Face the Music Tour, which chronicles the UK leg of his European solo tour last year.  It is brilliant, something you definitely want to check out.  And as Lofgren said of his live release, “It is the audience that breathes the life, fire and inspiration into every performance.”

Turning professional at age 17, Lofgren quickly took on big league status joining Neil Young at 18 playing piano, guitar, and singing on the platinum album After the Gold Rush, and followed that up by joining Crazy Horse in 1972.  He was surely a musician not to be denied true rock status.

With a bevy of solo releases on A&M, MCA and Columbia records, Nils came onto the music scene in one of the most visible states on the day this skillful guitarist joined Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band in 1984 on the Born in the USA tour. And the rest is rock and roll history.

CAS: What’s the biggest difference in doing music solo as opposed to an ensemble like Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band?

NL:  Well the obvious is you sing the lead and you play most of the solos, which of course is what people expect you to.  And then you move into a band and you’re singing a lot of harmonies, you’re playing different types of instruments.  I mean you’re playing acoustic, rhythm, pedal steel, lap steel, Dobro, six string banjo, different colors and styles. It’s fun for me to be in a band and have a different type of roll.  I’m happy doing all of it.  But I find that when I’m in a great band I come back to my next chapter and I’m kind of excited about what’s next for me. I’m not musically rusty because I was just in a great musical ensemble.

And then to have a series of 24 shows to promote The River album is very exciting, I’ll jump into that role and then immediately get back to honoring my solo commitments in April.

CAS:  Now it’s going to be The River tour with Bruce, how does that differ from the usual Bruce Springsteen shows where you mix up the songs over the span of his career each night?

NL:  Well that’s kind of an unknown right now. We did play the entire River album once in New York.  Gosh, there are so many bonus tracks on that.  There are twelve of them that even I’ve never heard!  So there’s a whole new album of music there.  And how Bruce wants to produce the night… I’m sure he has an overview and what happens is we’ll get into rehearsal and it will evolve.  And the shows are improv once we get out there. We just follow Bruce.  And I’m sure he’s got a vision on where to start and just by leading an inspired band it will evolve up until the first show and throughout the tour itself.

CAS:  Tell me about your new live cd release, UK 2015 Face the Music Tour and the plans you have to do some more solo road work of your own.

NL: I had a great run in the UK when I was over there last year.  And I’m excited that when The River tour ends I’ll get back out there on the road in the Northeast in April and May to start playing.  At this point I love to have a musical project to follow me, but I’ve slowed down a bit.  I’ve got this wonderful wife Amy.  And four dogs that give me dirty looks when I pull the suitcase out.  I don’t like leaving home anymore, but it is a champagne problem as Amy points out.  It’s actually given me a deeper focus and gratitude for the shows, because that’s when I’m away from home. I’ve come to embrace the work on stage even more as I’ve gotten older which is a beautiful thing, thank God.

CAS:  How many guitars do you own?

NL:  You know, I don’t even know. Geez, it’s probably well over a hundred.  With the E-Street Band I have about 50 on the road. We have 32 tuned for every show because we don’t know what we’re going to do! I’ve got so many, all these different sounds and instruments.  Pedal steels and lap steels and dobros and bottle necks and six-string banjos, baritones, acoustics, electrics.  I’m grateful to have a collection after fifty years doing it.

CAS:  What do you think of when you’re up there playing?

NL:  I try to think as little as possible.  I try to prepare for the day.  I try to get there to the venue 2-and-a-half hours before the band to have time to myself, to my tech, to my pedals, to my strings, just whatever.  My health.  Do my own prep. And then when the band and Bruce show up it’s kind of like there’s always surprises from Bruce and we get ready for what we’re going to do that night. The goal is to just shut your mind off and get inside the music. It’s kind of a musical spirit with a little gift to it that I didn’t ask for, it was just given.  And just react to what you hear and see and do your thing.

At my own shows too, I just try to study lyrics, and I might honor some requests, make some little notes on my set list.  And just try to prepare enough for the day with food, rest, musical preparation so that when you get out there you just kind of shut your phone off, shut your mind off, and just get inside the music and let it take you along with the energy of the crowd which is an enormous beautiful thing that never happens anywhere else except in front of an audience.

CAS:  What are the dynamics like between the E-Street Band and Bruce?

NL:  Well, I joined the band 31 years ago; I used to buy tickets to see the guys play, so I had a distant relationship with all of them and Bruce in particular.  I have a great reverence and respect for every one of them, and I’m just very grateful to be in that band.

It’s a very healthy, homework atmosphere before shows; you know we learn songs we haven’t played in a long time. That we talked about in the sound check that we may or may not see in the show. I do my own little guess work and second guessing about songs.  I mean I think the last tour we played more than 240 songs.  So it’s a lot of healthy homework and camaraderie with humor and fun and we get to go out there and play in a great band together.

CAS:  How do you feel after the loss of (E-Street Band saxophonist) Clarence Clemons?

NL:  I miss him every day and it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get over.
We were dear friends offstage, and even on the road we spent a lot of time together. 

So… I actually have a song on my new cd called “Miss You C” that’s about Clarence.

On my 60th birthday, the night before my wife Amy and I flew to Florida to bury Clarence on my 60th birthday.  I was miserable and just wanted to pack and go home and kind of wallow in the misery and the loss.  But Amy insisted on taking us out to a birthday dinner which I didn’t want to do. There was about thirty of us with band, crew, friends, Clarence had friends all over the world.  And it turned out to be one of those five and a half hour commiserative, beautiful dinners where you end up telling stories.  And it was very powerful and healing. Ever since that night I’ve been singing “Miss You C” and it’s on my new UK cd. I think about it every night.  I still feel him with me as I go through my life.

CAS:  What’s your relationship like with Bruce?

NL:  Well, I love all those guys.  Bruce and I have a history going back to the 70s.  I’d just go to the shows… I was living in LA in the early 80s and I’d see him at the Sunset Marquis, and we’d take drives and listen to music.  And I’d talk to him about, for instance when I was 18 I was with Neil Young, and how much I liked NOT being the boss.  And how much fun it was just being in a great band. You know, all those issues of being a band leader go away.  So I think Bruce filed all this away and between that and our friendship, when he needed a guitarist he called me and I went to jam with the band for a couple of days, and then got the great gift to be asked to join.  I get along with and love everyone.

The great band and great singer, all the pieces in it and the people are wonderful and I’m looking forward to another chapter with them.