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Nils Lofgren

+ {Dolphin} + {Grin}

Playing lead guitar for some of rock music’s most revered legends (NEIL YOUNG, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and er… RINGO STARR) has rocketed the enigmatic NILS LOFGREN into the spotlight over his long and winding career. Guaranteeing a certain cool blues flavour throughout, showing off versatility and scope without quite overdoing it, the flamboyant star never committed the cardinal sin of overindulgence and, without setting the world alight, Nils’ LPs (including the “Back It Up!! Nils Lofgren Live – An Authorized Bootleg” in ‘76) had enough sumptuous guitar pieces and eloquently crafted tracks to make his life as a top axeman a worthwhile experience.
Born Nils Hilmer Lofgren, June 21, 1951, Chicago, Illinois, he was raised in Garrett Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. by his Italian/Swedish parents. A protégé of accordion playing since the age of 5, Nils graduated to rock music and, at 17 years of age, joined (ex-The Hangmen) Dolphin; credited as “Nils Lothgrin” on the first of two flop singles, `Let’s Get Together’. The following year, in 1969, the lead guitarist featured on Paul Dowell And The Dolphin’s `It’s Better To Know You’, before defecting with George Day (keyboards, guitar) and Bob Berberich (drums) to form the harder-edged and poignantly-named GRIN.
While building up the group’s live reputation, Nils sessioned on piano and guitar for NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE on the `After The Gold Rush’ album, while CRAZY HORSE themselves, also roped him as part-writer/5th member for their equally outstanding eponymous debut, released early in ‘71; contributing `Nobody’ and `Beggar’s Day’ (lead vocals on the latter). On the back of GRIN’s only platter for Thunder Records (a division of C.B.S.): `We All Sung Together’, bassist Bob Gordon was called upon to supersede Daly, who duly became an A&R executive at the affiliated Columbia.
Moving along the corporate corridor to CBS’s Spindizzy, they previewed their self-titled debut LP, GRIN (1971) {*6}, with the single `If I Were A Song’. The David Briggs-produced album only managed to scrape into the Top 200, augmented as it was on a handful of tracks by NEIL YOUNG and CRAZY HORSE-ers Danny Whitten and Ralph Molina. Remarkable when one thinks of his age and his wide-ranging CV up to now, the set was made all the better for the sentimental `Like Rain’ and `Pioneer Mary’, plus the screeching rockers `See What Love Can Do’ and `I Had Too Much (Miss Dazi)’.
Selling in higher quantities, as to the fact that it delivered a minor hit 45 by way of opener, `White Lies’, 1 + 1 (1972) {*7} was still overlooked by many prospective fans. Okay, it was a tad slushy in places (side two for instance), but in the catchy rock numbers `Please Don’t Hide’, `Slippery Fingers’, `Moon Tears’ and the “other” single, `End Unkind’, GRIN were racing towards a happy medium.
The addition of younger brother Tom Lofgren (on rhythm guitar) complemented the band’s third album, ALL OUT (1973) {*6}, but one couldn’t disguise that this was a one-man show, with Nils wasted on some soft-rock or countrified material; `Ain’t Love Nice’ (the obligatory flop), `Sad Letter’ and the light-weight `Heavy Chevy’, toothless no matter how big the smile was on the illustrative sleevework.
A change of stations and style resulted in A&M Records giving the cheesy GRIN another chance on GONE CRAZY (1973) {*6}. Despite a re-vamped tribute song, `Beggar’s Day (Eulogy To Danny Whitten), to his old CRAZY HORSE buddy, who tragically died the previous November, and several JOE WALSH or LITTLE FEAT-like cuts, `You’re The One’, `What About Me’ and `True Thrill’, GRIN were going nowhere fast.
The guitarist’s precocious talent duly confirmed on his eponymous A&M solo debut, NILS LOFGREN (1975) {*8}, his groove – and his flipping somersault-on-a-trampoline stage antics – were met with an irrepressible verve and a rock-solid set of songs, augmented by Wornell Jones (bass) and journeyman drummer Aynsley Dunbar. From the brawny KEITH RICHARDS nod, `Keith Don’t Go (Ode To The Glimmer Twin)’ and the sensitive rendition of GOFFIN & KING’s `Goin’ Back’ (also recorded by The BYRDS among others), to the infectious pop-rock of single, `Back It Up’ and `Rock And Roll Crook’, former whiz kid LOFGREN was again in everybody’s good books.
One of the “everybody’s” was NEIL YOUNG, who invited CRAZY HORSE and Nils along for the ride on his sublime `Tonight’s The Night’ album. As well as contributing haunting piano and vocals to the likes of `Albuquerque’ and `Tired Eyes’, the star-in-waiting offered up some searing guitar licks on `Speakin’ Out’ and the title track.
Although Nils’ debut solo record failed to reach Top 100 proportions, a cult following was ascertained for the aforesaid BACK IT UP!! NILS LOFGREN LIVE – AN AUTHORISED BOOTLEG (1976) {*8}. From its limited-edition run of 1000 copies sent to lucky radio stations around the States, to its subsequent representation on “official” CD, the collector’s piece might’ve proved unwelcome among the establishment, but it did register to mostly anyone, that with a tape recorder one could spring life to an artist in his prime; it was bookended/segued by two GRIN cuts, `Take You To The Movies’ and `Soft Fun’.
Rewarded by some belated Top 40 (UK Top 10!) chart success courtesy of the AL KOOPER-produced CRY TOUGH (1976) {*7}, LOFGREN was still not to everyone’s taste. A more guitar-orientated affair, as the title track established, it briefly elevating Nils to the level of recognition enjoyed by most of his peers. On closer inspection and/or reflection, the man simply adhered axe riffs to sentimental songs (e.g. the cod-reggae YARDBIRDS cover, `For Your Love’), while `Jailbait’ and the RUNDGREN-esque `Can’t Get Closer’, had elements of funk.
Irrespective of another gem of a title track, I CAME TO DANCE (1977) {*5} was a disappointment to the majority of his growing heartland fanbase, who’d bought the transatlantic Top 40 LP thinking they might be treated to some heavy licks. Co-produced with his new drummer Andy Newmark (Aynsley’s replacement), there was little but swagger and slick retro rock’n’roll on `Code Of The Road’, `Happy Ending Kids’ and an addendum cover of The ROLLING STONES’ `Happy’.
Ill-timed and ill-conceived, coming so close after “that bootleg LP”, the cash-in Top 50 double-set NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1977) {*5} – featuring fresh drummer David Platshon and keyboardist Rev. Patrick Henderson – just rounded up his best bits so far and gave kids a good excuse to turn to punk-rock.
The long wait for the slightly-improved Bob Ezrin-produced NILS (1979) {*6}, led it to sell even less copies, despite the lyrical suss of guest LOU REED and/or his esteemed buddy Dick Wagner for the bulk of the tracks (including the back-to-back `A Fool Like Me’ and `I Found Her’); the odd one out was a reading of RANDY NEWMAN’s `Baltimore’. LOFGREN was only really returning the complement, as he was one of a handful of collaborators on the ex-VU man’s `The Bells’ (also 1979).
A fresh deal with Backstreet Records (a division of M.C.A.) failed to turn things around as NIGHT FADES AWAY (1981) {*4} slipped out of contention and the Top 100 (Top 50 UK) after only a week in the lists. Employing a raft of session men and a cameo for DEL SHANNON on `I Go To Pieces’ (not the C&W cover incidentally), LOFGREN and former STEELY DAN member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter could not work the magic on `Ancient History’, `In Motion’ and the token cover, by way of LENNON & McCARTNEY’s `Anytime At All’.
Straight back on course via an experimental time on NEIL YOUNG’s `Trans’ (1982), LOFGREN tried in vain to gain a foothold in the 80s, thinking that churning out stuff that would make BILLY JOEL gloat (namely WONDERLAND (1983) {*5}), would seal a return. Not so. Aimed at the MTV market, FM-radio, and encompassing more directions that a busy highway intersection, Nils and his tight band (rhythm section Kevin McCormick and Andy Newmark) hit a new low with a cover of The VALENTINOS’ `It’s All Over Now’, although `Across The Tracks’, `Deadline’ and the title track were worthy of carrying on.
In 1984, as Steven Van Zandt/LITTLE STEVEN duly tread on his commercial toes, LOFGREN replaced the guitarist and initiated a marathon stint in BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’s E-Street Band. From live lieutenant to 1987’s `Tunnel Of Love’ onwards, until “The Sopranos” star returned a decade on, Nils played sidekick to “The Boss”.
Meanwhile, LOFGREN’s solo career took a slight upsurge when his Columbia-endorsed FLIP (1985) {*6} proved a hit in the UK, having been independently released for Towerbell Records. Known for his gymnastic traits on stage, it all started well on `Flip Ya Flip’ and the minor-hit (his only one) UK single, `Secrets In The Streets’, but again he sacrificed quality for commercialised high-octane soft-rockers on decent tracks, `Sweet Midnight’ and `Big Tears Fall’. This was the artist’s final studio release of the decade; the live double-set CODE OF THE ROAD (1986) {*5} – recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon – not even thought worthy of a Stateside dispatch.
The early 90s saw the singer/songwriter/guitarist return with a new band – LEVON HELM joining keyboard player Scott Thurston, plus stalwarts Newmark and McCormick – on a two albums in as many years for Rykodisc Records; an uncharacteristically prolific burst of creativity no doubt fuelled by his long years as a sideman. Both influenced by his time with the mighty Bruce, SILVER LINING (1991) {*6} and CROOKED LINE (1992) {*5} – the latter featuring a cover of `Just A Little’ – ambled toward the mainstream.
An integral part of RINGO STARR’s All-Starr Band from 1989-92, LOFGREN’s first foray into original motion picture soundtrack work was for the movie EVERYBREATH (1994) {*6}. The record was peppered with howling blues licks, ear-shattering harmonica parts, smooth-as-silk ballads, and to-die-for guitar solos, that all added up to a fine body of work. From the opening bars of the down ‘n’ dirty `No Return’, through the delicate `Tender Love’ and jazz lounge-tinged `Rainy Nights’, to the final, gospel-accompanied, screeching notes of `Fallen Into His Hands’, the profound score was an eclectic mix of styles that complemented each other.
A follow-on album, DAMAGED GOODS (1995) {*5}, and the obligatory unplugged ACOUSTIC LIVE (1997) {*7} were a little gruff around the edges; the guitar hero taking the philosophical route on a return studio collaboration with LOU REED on `Life’, while the solo concert set unloaded all his faves to an intimate audience. The Mr. Nice of the rock establishment, LOFGREN remained one of the most respected, highly-praised and in-demand guitarists around; the fact that his solo career never really took off only served to fuel his cult status.
LOFGREN returned in 2002 with BREAK AWAY ANGEL {*6}, a largely acoustic set featuring the axemeister in unfamiliar but satisfying terrain, amid dobro, mandolin, upright bass and fiddle, and even covering the Boudleaux & Felice Bryant classic, `All I Have To Do Is Dream’; another co-written LOU REED piece, `Driftin’ Man’ was nothing startling. Together with Paul Berry (guitar), Wade Matthews (bass) and Timm Biery (drums), the NILS LOFGREN BAND LIVE {*6} record maintained his ratio of concert sets, bookending the double-CD in a couple of newer songs, `Puttin’ Out Fires’ and `Daddy Dream’, with renditions of `The Star Spangled Banner’ and EWAN MacCOLL’s `First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’; a nice touch too was his reading of Danny Whitten’s `I Don’t Wanna Talk About It’ (recognisable to ROD STEWART fans).
Roping in country legend WILLIE NELSON for opener `In Your Hands’, 2006’s SACRED WEAPON {*6} also paid homage to the passing of friends David Briggs (on `Mr. Hardcore’) and jazz man Walter Payton (on `Tried And True’), while many critics still on board had stated it had been his finest achievement for some time.
While one couldn’t quite foresee strummer LOFGREN covering an album’s worth of material from “The Boss” (but never say never!), his acoustic-guitar or piano-led THE LONER: NILS SINGS NEIL (2008) {*7} was spirited and moving; adding a fair amount of spondulicks into YOUNG’s bulging bank balance. Displaying a dream vocal and some intricate guitar work that any blues folky would be proud of, Nils cherry-picked 15 tracks from the icon’s repertoire; all top-drawer:- `Long May You Run’, `I Am A Child’, `Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, `Like A Hurricane’, `The Loner’, et al…
Celebrating six decades on the planet, OLD SCHOOL (2011) {*6} reminisced Nils’ time with GRIN so many moons ago for the rollicking `60 Is The New 18’, while guest spots for SAM & DAVE (on `Ain’t Too Many Of Us Left’), LOU GRAMM and PAUL RODGERS, respectively, were welcomed by long-standing – some would say long-suffering – disciples of his undoubted talent. Heartfelt, wistful ballads or earnest roots-rock, LOFGREN was to shine silently for the title track, `Amy Joan Blues’ (SEASICK STEVE, anyone?) and the lilting `Irish Angel’. Still a revered accomplice of SPRINGSTEEN’s band, Nils has since made his mark on two sets: `Wrecking Ball’ (2012) and `High Hopes’ (2014).
Blatantly milking his recent multi-CD/DVD boxed set of the same name (artists usually promote fresh material on tour), NILS LOFGREN’s UK2015 FACE THE MUSIC TOUR {*6} featured highlights from his long career. Accompanied by the multi-instrumental talents of Greg Varlotta, the grinning genius showcased some of his best workouts, raiding the vaults of his weary mind for `Like Rain’ and the sentimental `I Don’t Want To Talk About it’, whilst relying on fan faves such as `Too Many Miles’ and `Shine Silently’ to steal the show.
Taking time off from his fresh commitments as part of NEIL YOUNG’s CRAZY HORSE, LOFGREN’s timing to get back on track in the studio was perfect a la BLUE WITH LOU (2019) {*7}. The story goes that after LOU REED’s death in 2013, the guitarist uncovered several songs they’d recorded back in ’79 when they spent time together as best buddies working on their respective sets, “Nils” and “The Bells”. Finally recording the dusty song sheets from the vaults (alongside bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Andy Newmark), and giving `City Lights’ a makeover, the likes of `Attitude City’, `Give’, `Cut Him Up’ and the nostalgia-inducing `Talk Thru The Tears’, sat well alongside solo compositions such as the blues-driven title track.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/MCS+CM // rev-up MCS Nov2015-Jun2019

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