An exclusive chat with the guitar innovator for Crazy Horse and E Street about his killer new live album
During his five-decade career, celebrated rock guitarist Nils Lofgren has released many albums – first with his band Grin, then with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as well as his own solo music.
Even after all that, though, Lofgren says he doesn’t take putting new work out into the world for granted. “Actually, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more grateful for the whole experience,” he says, calling from Scottsdale, Arizona, where he has lived for many years.
Sometimes, though, an album comes as something of a surprise: Lofgren admits that he actually hadn’t initially planned to create Weathered, a 16-track live album that’s set for release on August 21. Lofgren knew that these shows, in 2019, would be special. After all, they were the first ones in more than 15 years where he’d fronted his own full electric band. But he didn’t realize just how exceptional it was until two dates in, when Amy, his wife of 24 years, told him that it sounded so amazing that he should consider recording the rest of the performances.
Still, Lofgren resisted the idea, simply because of the logistics involved in pulling together the needed equipment and personnel after the tour was already underway. But his wife persisted until he relented, and now he’s glad: “Thanks to Amy insisting on doing it, and a great soundman, crew people, and band, we got something special and fresh,” he says.
The tracks on Weathered are drawn from across Lofgren’s impressive career, from his early band Grin through songs he wrote with the late Lou Reed. The blues-influenced rock is at once complex yet loose, thanks to a band lineup consisting of some of the most seasoned players in the business: Andy Newmark on drums (who’s played with John Lennon, Sly Stone, David Bowie, and Eric Clapton), Kevin McCormick on bass and vocals (Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jackson Browne, Melissa Ethridge, Keb’ Mo’), and Cindy Mizelle on vocals (Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen), as well as Lofgren himself on guitar, and his brother Tom Lofgren on guitars, keyboards, and vocals.
Having his brother Tom in his band is a particularly special thing for Lofgren, because they first started playing music together when they were still young children growing up in the Washington, DC area.
Lofgren’s first instrument was the accordion, which he started playing when he was five years old; it was something he took seriously enough that by his teens, he was regularly entering accordion playing competitions. “It was very nerve-wracking,” he says of those early public performance experiences. “You have to play every single note as written.”
VIDEO: Nils Lofgren “Idas Sommarvisa”
Lofgren found more artistic freedom when he switched to guitar – a fateful move that he says was inspired by his brother. “Tommy started playing guitar in the house first. I asked him to show me a few chords, which he did. He was my first guitar teacher,” Lofgren says. His musical education continued when he fell in love with rock and roll thanks to The Beatles, and from there he discovered the British Invasion, Motown, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard.
Lofgren graduated from high school and founded the rock band Grin – and it wasn’t long before his younger brother joined him. “Tommy got his high school diploma a year early to join Grin after our second record,” Lofgren says. Their musical partnership has continued, off and on, ever since: “He was on the road making our records and touring and has done thousands of shows with my solo band.”
Lofgren has two other younger brothers, Mike and Mark, who are also musically talented. “They picked it up as a hobby, and they’re quite good at it,” Lofgren says. This is proven on Weathered, which features all four Lofgren brothers performing on “Mind Your Own Business,” a cover of a Hank Williams song.
VIDEO: Nils Lofgren Band perform “Mind Your Own Business”
“It was great to get a version of that [song] with my brothers out there,” Lofgren says. “I can honestly say they’re my best friends. We just completely comfortably can talk about anything, and disagree with no angst or drama. Usually, when I play the D.C. area, all four of us will get up and play and sing together. It’s just a joy.”
Another joyful aspect of Weathered, for Lofgren, is the fact that it captured him, and his band, in peak improvisational mode. “We jammed a lot. It’s a bit reckless,” he says. “We like to keep it loose and immediate, because if you’re always getting surprised by your bandmates’ ideas, it encourages you to play things you wouldn’t normally play. I call it ‘going fishing.’ You hear me do it on the record. I may be a little sloppy and funky, but all of the sudden I catch something and it steps it up a bit.”
Lofgren says he learned to be this type of “frontman who jams,” as he puts it, from working with band leaders like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Ringo Starr (Lofgren has been in several lineups of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, including the very first three iterations). Lofgren says there is a clear commonality that all of those frontmen share: “These musicians, to a man, gave the band freedom.”
VIDEO: Nils Lofgren performs “Shine Silently” with the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band at the 1992 Montreux Jazz Festival
Lofgren has built an illustrious career thanks to his adventurous, adaptable guitar playing, and he says he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It’s a freedom that I love,” he says of his chosen style. “There are those shows, we’ve all seen them, where it’s a great show but you get the impression every night is identical – but the ones I like are where everything is reckless, and you’re not even sure what’s going on, and all the sudden the musician in front of you catches something and goes with it and it lifts the whole room.”
These days, touring is an impossibility, but Lofgren plans to return to the road as soon as he’s allowed. “I do love performing – that’s the favorite part of my job,” he says. “Yes, there’s moments in the studio and in rehearsal, but nothing like being in front of an audience.”
Until those future shows are possible, Lofgren says, he hopes that Weathered will give his fans something uplifting – and helpful – as they navigate these troubled times. “I consider music the sacred weapon of the entire planet, and we need it now more than ever,” he says, “so I’m glad I have a live, reckless, inspired version of some of my favorite songs to share, and I hope people will check it out.”
AUDIO: Nils Lofgren Band “Attitude City”