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Published: Saturday, 6/10/2006

Springsteen guitarist takes the spotlight

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Doors open at 8 p.m. for Nils Lofgren s acoustic show at The Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale, Mich. Tickets are $25.
Doors open at 8 p.m. for Nils Lofgren s acoustic show at The Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale, Mich. Tickets are $25.
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Nils Lofgren has traveled for years in the lap of rock-and-roll luxury.

With Bruce Springsteen s E Street Band he s toured the world strictly first class playing stadiums and arenas where his job was ambling on stage and for three hours handling myriad guitar chores for one of the greatest bands ever.

Rarely the center of attention, Lofgren is one of the band s key players, a utility man who handles rhythm guitar on one song, lead on the next, and pedal steel a few tunes later. His solos, most notably an angry, otherwordly workout on Youngstown, were highlights of many of the shows.

Here s how Springsteen introduced him when the E Street Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago, according to Boss fanzine Backstreets:

Nils Lofgren, the most over-qualified second guitarist in show business. He plays 10 times better than me, and he still wanders over to hear my solos when I play. I guess he s checking to see if I m getting any better.

So what s he doing now out on the road with just a few guitars, a lifetime of songs, and ambition that burns hot enough to fire him up for the gritty job of driving around the country playing small joints where things usually don t go as planned?

What gives?

He s got a new disc to push, Sacred Weapon, and as a solo artist there s no other way to sell it in the current marketplace without hustling. So that s why a musician who has released more than 20 solo albums and played key roles for Springsteen and Neil Young is performing a solo show at suburban Detroit s intimate Magic Bag on June 18.

The dream of someone like me is to make music to share and my dream is to have 200 cities all over the world where 2,000 people will come, he said in a telephone interview.

I could bring my own lights, my own P.A., and control the environment and let the surprises just be the improvisation and the music and know that it will be presented by my great crew and band through equipment that allows the audience to experience it to the fullest.

That cannot happen in clubs, yet it s exciting and exhausting to walk into the next club and it s like, OK that s broken, this is in the wrong place, the stage is half the size it s supposed to be. OK, let s put on a great show for the audience.

From Grin to E Street

Blessed with a choirboy voice and a fluid, highly individualized finger-picking guitar style, Lofgren s one of those rare guitarists who is instantly identifiable when you hear one of his solos.

By the time he was selected in 1984 to replace Little Steven Van Zandt as the second guitar player in the E Street Band, Lofgren had already completed the first leg of a career marked by a number of excellent solo albums and a stint in the first incarnation of Young s Crazy Horse band.

Growing up in the Washington area, Lofgren s first band was Grin. A critically acclaimed power-pop outfit which made three albums that are considered cult classics and which sold poorly, the band attracted regional attention but couldn t get national traction.

When Young and his second guitarist Danny Whitten played in the Washington area in the late 60s, they heard of Lofgren, who made his way backstage and introduced himself to the band. Young invited him to play on 1970 s After the Goldrush album, beginning a partnership that has lasted decades.

He was part of the band when it recorded the frighteningly dark Tonight s the Night album, an exercise in rock-and-roll excess that was recorded in the wake of Whitten s drug overdose.

Years later Lofgren also played on Young s Trans album and toured with him in a couple of other incarnations.

Not surprisingly for a guy who also was a member of Ringo Starr s All-Starr tours and who has had Willie Nelson, Levon Helm, David Crosby, and Graham Nash make guest appearances on his albums, Lofgren is nonchalant about playing with some of rock s most influential artists.

Neil s a friend. He knows I d love to play with him again. I love him and it s inspired collaboration, Lofgren said.

The same is true of Spring-steen, who he said will determine when the E Street Band, which last toured together in 2004, will get back together.

It s very casual and loose and the E Street Band thing is a lifelong commitment, he said. Hopefully there will be another chapter because I m a fan, too, but there are no current plans.

Going solo

Starting in 1975, following the demise of Grin, Lofgren, 54, embarked on a solo career that is still going strong. His early works, most notably Nils Lofgren (1975), Cry Tough (1976), and I Came to Dance (1977) were solid rock-and-roll records that featured a regular touring band, airplay on FM radio, and lots of critical praise.

Like many artists whose careers started then, he s suffered from a lack of interest from major labels as he s gotten older and less in vogue with the folks in the record-company marketing departments. His later career has been marked by solo albums like Damaged Goods (1995), Breakaway Angel (2002), and the recently released Sacred Weapon, which features appearances from Nelson, Nash, and Crosby, that don t sell well.

And ironically, many of the songs he s best known for from early in his career with Grin and as a solo artist Believe, Wonderland, I Came to Dance, Like Rain are, as he says, extinct because he doesn t own the rights to the songs and they re on albums that are out of print.

Lofgren said he s tried buying the songs back, but the companies don t want the legal hassle.

I m just too small of a business matter to bother addressing with their large machine, he said. I don t mean to sound bitter. I do have a sense of humor about it, I m alive and well with new music and I m singing and playing and I m not unique in this.

So he concentrates on his current works, maintaining an active Internet site (www.nilslofgren.com) that he uses as his own mini-marketing department, selling his later CDs, T-shirts, and even posting guitar lessons.

I m kind of trying to start over and build a business through the Internet, he said.

It s exciting and gives me freedom, but it s a bit daunting. It s kind of a new frontier.

Back on the road

Happily married to wife Amy (he is the stepfather of her son, Dylan) Lofgren said he relishes the new challenges just as much as he enjoys playing with some of his musical heroes.

He s proud of Sacred Weapon, and his dream is to get a few of the songs, most notably the Nelson collaboration In Your Hands played regularly on Christian radio stations. While he s not a born-again Christian, his music has long reflected a strong spiritual grounding that he inherited from his parents.

Lofgren also is looking for any way for his music to find a wider audience. Which goes back to explaining the solo tour, which has taken him to Europe and features his first Midwestern U.S. shows in many years.

And despite the reservations about playing shows in small clubs, he said it s all part of the same musical journey and he looks forward to the chance to share his songs.

I m betting on myself because when I walk in front of an audience, that is like a home for me, he said. It s a place where I feel completely at peace, I feel relaxed, I feel confident, therapeutic, and medicinal about performing before a crowd, and I have to believe that I can do something special for them, he said.

There s a peace and an intimacy with the acoustic show that you just don t get with an electric show.

Expect to see Lofgren at the merchandise table signing autographs and chatting with fans, something you d never experience on one of the Springsteen tours.

He s not complaining.

When you go out with a band as big as Bruce and the E Street Band you get spoiled rotten and you really get to focus on the music, Lofgren said. When you play little bars the days are much longer, and it s a lot more challenging and physical, but it s just as rewarding.

Doors open at 8 p.m. for Nils Lofgren s acoustic show at The Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale, Mich. Tickets are $25.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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