Nils Lofgren first hit the road as a 17-year-old fronting the band Grin. In the half century since, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee has worked and toured with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band to Neil Young, all the while maintaining a successful solo career.
Ahead of his 50 Years… Up The Road UK tour in May, Lofgren looks back to his first live gigs, shares what he learned from working with Neil Young, discusses the life-long relationships formed while recording the I Came To Dance album, reveals what’s in store for his next album, and admits he’s really looking forward to playing in the UK again.
Your upcoming UK shows are billed as “an intimate acoustic evening of songs and stories” with you being joined onstage by multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta. What’s the appeal of that stripped-back setup?
I’ve been coming there for probably 45 years or so and there’s an intimacy to the old theatres in England; I think it’s probably the only place I’ve ever been you can find an ancient 350- or 500-seat theatre. It’s really an emotional, intimate environment to be that close to people.
And I love working with Greg because once in a while I can go out and play some songs by myself but it’s nice not to have to supply every colour, and have other sounds and a great musician to play off of, whether it’s an extra harmony singer, keyboards, guitar. We even have Greg doing some trumpet playing (he’s a brilliant trumpet player) and also he’s a great tap dancer so we’ll use that as a percussion instrument occasionally.
Or occasionally Greg carries the rhythm so I can just go off and, instead of finger-picking lead and rhythm, I can just go off and be a lead guitarist and improvise some melodies and “go fishing” I call it, looking for something special with some improv lead guitar work.
So for that reason, Greg and I have been together for 10 years when I do the duo show, and we’re going to change the show up a bit and do some different song selection this time around.
You’re out celebrating 50 years on the road. What are your lasting memories of your earliest touring days?
Fifty years ago I’d certainly just started out with my band Grin and we played anywhere and everywhere. We became a big local act in Washington DC before we headed out to Los Angeles looking for a record deal and that’s kind of a blur because of course you tried to play as often as possible. Not only to get better at it – there were a lot of places to play in the mid ‘60s, but it didn’t pay much so you wound up also working hard.
It was kind of a pure experience – no video, there were really no DJs to speak of. You worked hard and just tried to put your money together, have four, five guys in your crew living in a rental home. We used to have these places in the country in Virginia and Maryland and, you know, it was very simple. You had a landline, had some water bills, some heating bills, you all chipped in, and made it work. It was kind of a lesson in how to work with others on stage and off, how to live with others, how to make it work, and the central theme was always to get to the next show and get better at it.
Certainly the first time I came to England on tour, which was a bit after that, was the 1973 Tonight’s The Night tour with Neil Young. I had a ball being there with Neil, and going from town to town playing this bizarre record nobody had ever heard, and trying to turn the audience on to this very unusual experience that we’d had doing this record in a rehearsal hall in Hollywood.
What did you learn from working with Neil?
At 17 years old, I met Neil at a nightclub in Washington DC. He invited me to hang out with him for a couple of days and see four shows at The Cellar Door, which were very impressive, his first Crazy Horse tour. He said: ‘Look me up when you get to LA’ and, true to his word, he and David Briggs took us under their wing. David in particular, he moved me into his home and agreed produce my band Grin; Neil wanted to be involved too and he sang on the record. He got so busy with his own work with Crosby Stills Nash and Young but always stayed in touch.
By far they were my two greatest mentors. Just to be around that kind of inspiration and talent, and back then David was a real hard charger. We loved him because he was all about music and he would ask the managers and the business people to sit quietly and enjoy the music or get out. He never permitted business discussions in the studio and, look, when people from your record company show up you can’t really be that heavy handed with them. You try to be diplomatic and it was great to have a guy like David who’d literally chase them from the room if they couldn’t help themselves talking business.
And as we made our way, my band Grin, Neil and David approached me and said: ‘Hey, you know we’re doing this project After The Gold Rush and we want you to be part of the recording band on the piano and the guitar and sing.’ And I’d had a year or so with them so they were friends, even though they were kind of big brother type friends. I was just 18, and i pointed out I wasn’t really a professional piano player but they knew about my classical accordion history. I’d studied classical accordion for nine years, I’d won some contest, and they pointed this out to me and they just said very casually: ‘You know, we like your sense of melody and rhythm and we just need some simple piano work and we think you can handle it’.
Thank God at that point I shut up and said: ‘Thank you’. I was nervous about it and I practiced all the time, but I was able to play on that great beautiful record.
And really by far they were my two greatest mentors, and I’ve had many, but at that young age of 17 to wind up spending a lot of time with David Briggs and Neil Young was, and still remains, the most enormous music school I ever went to.
Talking enormous – your collection of musical instruments is quite legendary. You auctioned some off a couple of years ago, but are there any you’d never sell?
Of course. The beautiful Martin D18 Neil Young gave me for making the After The Gold Rush album, quite a handful of precious ‘61 Strats and old guitars I’ve collected along the way.
Hey look, if it meant coming up with a solution if it was a health problem for my wife or my son or my precious dogs, I’d sell them all, but God willing I can hang on to them.
I must have over 100 guitars. I just have so much equipment I just felt: ‘Well it’s great stuff, I’m using different stuff but it’s still great stuff, why don’t I get it out there and let people use it?’ There’s probably a couple dozen very precious guitars and instruments or old accordions that I’m going to hang on to and God willing I’ll be able to.
The last time RockShot spoke with you, we discussed your first solo album. Now your fourth LP, I Came To Dance, has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. What do you remember about making that record?
My record company were looking for producers. Wornell Jones – a great bass player in Washington DC, who was a dear friend, still is – had played with Andy Newmark, a fabulous drummer who did the Sly Stone Fresh album and played in Sly and the Family Stone replacing the original drummer.
And Wornell suggested I talk to Andy, and I got on the phone, we hit it off, and he was flying to New York so we agreed to hook up. I was playing a free concert in Central Park, I think we opened for Rick Derringer, and he came to the concert. We talked and became fast friends and that led to Andy producing the I Came To Dance record with me, and Wornell was in the band on bass.
And then we hit the road. I think Andy missed the tour because he was doing other things, but that led to many, many albums working with Andy Newmark and, later, Kevin McCormick. We did the Wonderland album together, and Andy played on the Flip album.
Just recently, Andy and Kevin were here for two weeks tracking my new album and they did a spectacular job. My wife, Amy, had four grown men living on the property and being crazy musicians. Hats off to her for looking after us and cooking and taking care of us and allowing us to really focus on making a record, which we did. I’ve got my work cut out for me the rest of the year. I’m hoping before year’s end it will be complete and maybe out early next year, but it was exciting to work with Andy.
And that was just a suggestion from Wornell Jones in ‘76 and ‘77 that led to the making of I Came To Dance with Andy and a long friendship that still remains solid to this day.
Before we have to let you go, what can you share about the new album?
It’s a bit more on the electric side, a little more blues-based and aggressive, but still my sense of melody in there. I’ve been writing, putting songs together for over a year and really feel like I’ve got a great batch of songs. I feel really good about it. It’s been a long time since I made a studio record. The time is right. I couldn’t have had two better friends and musicians helping me. I couldn’t have asked for more from them, and now it’s my job to turn it into a record.
Nils Lofgren 50 Years… Up The Road UK tour dates
14th May: Guildford, G Live
15th May: Basingstoke, The Anvil
16th May: Birmingham, Town Hall
17th May: Liverpool, Philharmonic Hall
19th May: Harrogate, Royal Hall
20th May: Edinburgh, Queen’s Hall
21st May: Gateshead, The Sage
22nd May: Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
24th May: Cambridge, Corn Exchange
25th May: Tunbridge Wells, Assembly Hall
26th May: Malvern, Forum
28th May: London, Barbican
29th May: Norwich, Theatre Royal
30th May: St. Albans, Arena
31st May: Cardiff, St. David’s Hall
For more details, visit www.nilslofgren.com.
Nils van der Linden in conversation with Nils Lofgren April 2018