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Music DVD Review: Nils Lofgren – Cry Tough

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Although not exactly a household name, Nils Lofgren has had one of the more amazing careers in rock and roll history.

Not many guitarists can make the claim of playing with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen on their resume. Nils Lofgren can.

Legend also has it that Lofgren was taught how to play the guitar by his neighbor, blues legend Roy Buchanan. Beat that if you think you can.

Asked as a mere teenager to join the sessions for Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush album (by none other than Young himself), Nils was later tapped again by Neil for a number of tours — including the legendary shows premiering the songs from Tonight’s The Night, and the infamous Trans shows of the early eighties.

Just a year after completing the Trans tour with Young, Lofgren would go on to fill Little Steven’s considerable shoes in the E Street Band on the eve of Bruce Springsteen’s star-making Born In The U.S.A. stadium tour.

What’s less known though, is that Lofgren has had an equally impressive — if somewhat more sporadic — run as a solo artist.

Beginning with the four, now highly regarded albums he recorded with his first group Grin, and continuing on with albums like Cry Tough, I Came To Dance and the legendary “official bootleg” Back It Up, Nils Lofgren has also proven himself to be every bit as formidable a songwriter as he is a guitarist.

With songs ranging from beautiful ballads like “Valentine” to his rocking ode to Keith Richards “Keith, Don’t Go,” you can actually call Nils Lofgren a bit of a rock and roll renaissance man.

Many of these songs, including “Keith, Don’t Go,” “Back It Up,” and “Cry Tough” show up as many as three times over the course of the four hour plus(!) running time of Eagle Rock’s great new double-disc compilation of live performances taken from the German television rock concert showcase series Rockpalast.

Spread out over two DVD discs, Cry Tough (the title is taken from Lofgren’s 1976 album of the same name), brings together Nils Lofgren’s complete Rockpalast performances from three distinct periods of his career — from the years 1976, 1979, and 1991.

Of the three, it is perhaps the 1991 concert — which takes up all of disc one — that offers up the best overall picture of Lofgren’s considerable prowess as a virtuoso guitarist.

Coming off of Springsteen’s stadium tour for Born In The U.S.A., Lofgren nonetheless seems quite comfortable in the much smaller setting captured here, effortlessly switching from a tasteful acoustic reading of “Keith, Don’t Go,” to a full-on electric raveup of the song after being joined by the rest of his band halfway through.

From there, Nils turns in some burning slide guitar work on “Cry Tough.” By the time of “Gun And Run,” he’s playing behind his back and with his teeth Hendrix style.

It should also be noted here that Lofgren’s band for this show  — including guitarist and veteran Neil Young sideman Larry Cragg — is nothing short of top-notch.

The 1976 Rockpalast show which opens the second disc finds Lofgren doing a much rawer, funkier take on “Cry Tough.”

For “Going Back,” Lofgren gets behind the keyboard and proves to be every bit the house of fire that he is on the guitar (legend has it that Lofgren only learned the keys after Neil Young forced his hand for the sessions on After The Gold Rush).

Lofgren sounds absolutely amazing on the keys here, channeling the best barroom soul of a Faces-era Ian McLagan. Of the three complete concerts captured on this collection, the 1976 set is by far the rawest and most rocking, (and in the best Small Faces, Exile-era Stones sort of way).

For the 1979 performance which closes out the second disc, we find Nils Lofgren at the halfway point, performing before a much larger festival-sized crowd with a band whose look already seems to be anticipating the MTV eighties. Regardless, they still sound great.

Lofgren also rises here to the challenge of his impending rock stardom like a true champ — although of the three versions of “Keith, Don’t Go” on this set, this is by far the most anemic — paling particularly in comparison to the rawer 1976 version.

Once again, he also turns in some amazing slide guitar work for the third performance on this set of “Cry Tough” — this time mugging like a true rock star before the TV cameras.

Oh yeah, and he also does a backflip off the trampoline too (during “Back It Up”).

Can you say “awesome”?

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.