Arts & Culture

Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren talks about solo career, E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen and Nils Lofgren, of the E Street Band, perform at the March Madness Music Festival in April 2014 at Reunion Park in Dallas.
Bruce Springsteen and Nils Lofgren, of the E Street Band, perform at the March Madness Music Festival in April 2014 at Reunion Park in Dallas. DFW.com archives

The River, Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 double album, is aptly named, and not just because of the title song.

There’s an ebb and flow to the lengthy record, joyful rockers crashing up against mournful ballads. On several tracks, Springsteen writes about marriage (not always happily), even though it would be a few years before he was married himself.

The album was also released a few years before Nils Lofgren joined Springsteen’s band as lead guitarist in 1984, but Springsteen and Lofgren had been acquainted since 1970, when Springsteen’s band Steel Mill and the teen-age Lofgren’s band Grin were at an audition.

As Springsteen’s fame and Lofgren’s solo career grew, they’d check out each other’s shows, saying hi when they got a chance.

So even though Lofgren wasn’t part of the River lineup, he got an early listen to the album.

“I was living in L.A. in ’80 when I bumped into him at the Sunset Marquis before it became a famous hotel,” Lofgren says in a phone interview. “He had just finished The River, and invited me to go down to the studio with him to listen to it. ...

“Past the great songs and playing, I thought they got the sizzle of their live performances into the grooves.”

‘River’ flowing to Dallas

Now Lofgren is part of that sizzle, as Springsteen and the E Street Band bring the River tour to Dallas’ American Airlines Center on Tuesday. The band plays the album from start to finish, plus a varying lineup of non-River songs, with the occasional surprise (Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder joined for a performance of Bobby Jean in Seattle).

When Springsteen contacted Lofgren about the tour, Lofgren put his own solo tour — including a scheduled Dallas stop — on hold to rejoin the E Streeters. It’s an example of what Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham calls “The Big Machine and The Small Machine” — being part of a massively popular act, but also trying to maintain an identity as a solo artist.

“I was out doing about 65 shows last year with my acoustic duo,” Lofgren says. “You’re staying in Holiday Inns, you’re on a bus, you’re driving around, playing for three- to eight-hundred people a night.

“Afterwards, you go out on the town for an hour and a half, and my lovely wife Amy is selling posters and T-shirts she designed and homegrown CDs,” he says. “It’s very grassroots.

“And now here I am with over 50 guitars on the road,” he continues. “Playing with one of the great bands in history, E Street, for 20,000 people a clip. It’s a massive, deafening rock show, which I love. It’s all kind of natural to me.

“They’re two ... different worlds, but to me there’s more similarities than differences, because the goal is to go out as part of a musical team and share something musical to touch people.”

Wide-ranging career

When Lofgren joined E Street, he was already a veteran performer: leading Grin (beginning in 1969, when he was 17), playing on Neil Young albums such as After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night. Through his nearly 50-year career, he’s performed with many other artists, ranging from Willie Nelson to Ringo Starr to Branford Marsalis.

Go to Lofgren’s website (http://www.nilslofgren.com/) and you’ll see just how extensive his career has been: One of the items on offer is Face the Music, a 10-disc, 45-year retrospective of his solo work.

For the less obsessive, Lofgren released a double-live album, UK 2015 Face the Music Tour, in late 2015. The album highlights his prowess as a haunting, lyrical guitarist and songwriter, and also puts his warm, empathetic vocals out front.

Lofgren is known for his showmanship as a front man — he even had a trampoline onstage for acrobatics — and it can’t always be easy taking a back seat to a band leader as aggressive as Springsteen. As recently as 2008, Lofgren was turning somersaults while playing the solo on Springsteen’s Because the Night.

“I started when I was a kid in ’69, doing this backflip off a mini-tramp while I played guitar,” Lofgren says. “I was jumping off P.A. stacks and risers, not unlike Bruce.

“Like a lot of entertainers, the power of rock ‘n’ roll, music, R&B, whatever it is, country, blues, rock, just kind of a melting pot of all it — would make my body do things and flail around and get excited in ways that didn’t happen when I was not in front of an audience.”

But between his stage antics and his love of playing basketball, Lofgren destroyed his hips. He now has two metal hips implanted several years ago.

“The trampoline’s in the closet, and I’m not going to crazy pickup games on city courts anymore,” he says. “I’m still very active and physical.

“I picked up tap-dancing of all things. I’m still finding ways to have the music move through me.”

According to Peter Ames Carlin’s Springsteen biography, Bruce, Springsteen and Lofgren were watching MTV together in 1985 when they were surprised by Steven Van Zandt’s announcement that he was leaving the E Street Band.

When Springsteen brought the band together in 1999 after a long hiatus, Van Zandt was welcomed back, but Lofgren also kept his gig. And being part of the big machine has benefited the small machine, as E Street fans discover Lofgren’s solo stuff.

“There’s always usually one person a night, and it’s gratifying, because they’ll say, ‘Look, I just came because you played guitar for Bruce and Neil — I didn’t know you wrote or sang, and I liked it,’ ” Lofgren says.

“That’s always gratifying and cool. I’m grateful for notoriety as a guitarist and instrumentalist, but really I started as a singer-songwriter, and that’s the main focus, because you can’t play a guitar solo in song if you don’t have a song.”

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

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