Nils Lofgren is mostly known for his longtime association with Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band (for which he earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014) and Neil Young. But the gifted multi-instrumentalist/producer/singer-songwriter has a legacy of his own that has spanned over 50 years. Inspired by seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix live, Lofgren started his own band Grin in the late ‘60s and launched his solo career in the ‘70s, which has resulted in a rich discography of studio and live LPs (including Grin, Nils Lofgren, Back It Up!! Live…, and Acoustic Live).
The latest is Weathered, a 16-track, 2CD live album set for release on August 21 via his own Cattle Track Road Records. The material comes from Lofgren’s 2019 American tour that featured a full band with him for the first time in 15 years. It includes classics and deep cuts from his solo LPs and Grin (“Like Rain”), some “tasty” covers, and choice cuts from last year’s studio release, Blue with Lou (which debuted the final five of 13 tracks he co-wrote with the late Lou Reed).
Last Friday, August 7, I spoke by phone to him for 40 minutes about the new live album and Blue with Lou, fellow road warrior Willie Nile, singer Cindy Mizelle, Springsteen, and a wide range of other topics.
Here is an edited transcript of the call.
Congrats on over 51 years on the road playing music.
(Laughs) Yeah, well it’s been a long time, I think 52 years professionally. I started when I was a kid at [age] five playing accordion. My teacher used to take me to spaghetti dinners and show the crowd. Thank God music’s been around. It’s kind of been therapy. Pretty much I look at music as the planet’s sacred weapon. In some form or another, billions of us are turning to it every day for some comfort and solace and inspiration, laughs, hope, tears, the whole bit. It’s certainly been the main healing force in my life since I was very young.
You included performances on Weathered from Atlanta, Houston, and my hometown of Boston, so I appreciate that (laughs). In the liner notes, it says every town the band played in plays a part in this release. For the fans who didn’t get to see the tour last year, what were some of the other towns and cities you included in the 16 tracks?
You know, I don’t know offhand. I know that the entire collection came from about I think it was six or seven of the 19 or 20 cities. The band, which is an amazing collection of talent and dear old friends, we didn’t have much rehearsal time. My wife Amy and I moved everyone to our home here [in Arizona], and we used our garage studio and really worked hard for about six days before we blasted off.
The theme was to jam, improvise, and just react to and surprise each other and really be loose and free, which we did. And because of that, every night we had these crowds that really were expecting and encouraging it. And we really felt like every night and every moment on stage we grew as a band. … That’s why I feel the credit goes to every person every night that showed up. Now the actual maybe seven cities that all the versions came from, I don’t have a list of. I just happened to mention some in the show, but it was more than those few. They all really contributed to the record as it is.
One of my favorites on the new live release is the “Rock or Not,” the protest rocker from Blue with Lou. You have this really powerful line in the song where you mention Rosa Parks, Malala, and Carmen de Lavallade as “heroes in our midst.” What inspired you to come up with that particular trio?
My wife Amy is a fierce resistance warrior on Twitter, taking on people that are against democracy, human rights, children’s rights, Black Lives Matter, all of it. And that kind of gave me the idea. I had this title “Rock or Not” I thought would be a cool title. But I just kept looking at turning it into kind of a light rock or party song, and it just didn’t have the weight I wanted it to and decided I’d go a lot deeper. Amy and I, we read a lot and watch probably too much news. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and my band Grin played at some of the civil rights marches there in the ‘60s.
Wow.[Amy] reads nonfiction [books] about Malala, and all these brilliant women that have really had more to do with moving our dilemma of freedom and equality forward, a lot of times even more than men… . So it was really a combination of just being informed, paying attention to history, and having conversations, especially with my wife.
We watched and were thrilled when Malala lived and made it. And of course the Rosa Parks story is one of the pivotal great moments in sadly what is still an amazing fight for equality which is the whole premise of our country that we still haven’t realized. Which is a shame but it’s what we’ve been striving for … . And that’s where I kind of got all those names from.
On this live release, you introduce “Rock or Not” by sending it out to journalist and author David Corn. What’s your connection with him?
You know what? Again, through being on Twitter – my wife helps me with mine. … I guess David is in the Washington, D.C. area where I grew up. Last time I played the Birchmere acoustically, I think we reached out and invited David through Twitter, had a couple of lunches and dinners, and became friends. He’s a great guy and we love his work.
The same thing happened four to five years ago on Twitter. We wound up inviting David Axelrod and his wife Susan to dinner and they coincidentally bought a home here in Scottsdale [Arizona]. We’ve been great friends with them. Susan and David have a beautiful charity, CURE Epilepsy that we’ve participated in the last few years and will again this year. … So David [Corn] came to the show. Afterwards, we had some drinks at the hotel late into the evening. We’ve made some good friendships through social media, largely thanks to my wife’s resistance work.
You introduce “Girl in Motion” on Weathered with a pretty funny story of Ringo’s blunt advice to you during the song’s recording session [for the Silver Lining 1991 LP]. But on this performance, did you notice the audience erupt in applause after your extensive guitar solo?
You know, I did feel it a little bit. I try to get lost in the zone. Once of the nice things about this tour and most of my touring work as a solo artist is I’m playing small clubs – 300-500 seats.
In England, there’s little theaters and [where I] did another live acoustic record about five years ago [UK2015 Face the Music Tour]. But what happens is the people are right on top of you. It makes it easier to do the job of walking out and just turning your brain off getting lost in the music with the band. But of course, any time you finish a long phrase on guitar and you’re kind of catching your breath … and all of a sudden the audience throws some love at you, it certainly helps kick your next phrase up a notch.
There’s another release out August 21 that you’re a part of, the Willie Nile Uncovered tribute. You did “All God’s Children,” right?
Yeah, I’ve been a fan of Willie’s his whole career. He’s such a great recording artist and a lifer on the road like myself – just real kindred spirits. I was honored they’d asked me to participate in that.
I have to ask you about “Too Many Miles.” You didn’t have the harp on the Weathered version but it still sounds epic. Do you think there will come a time when you’ll have a studio version ready for release? I know you tried recording it with Bonnie Sheridan [of Delaney & Bonnie fame] a long time ago for the Every Breath project.
You know, we never got to record it with Bonnie. We were making [the Every Breath] soundtrack and we had so much other stuff to do and that song got left behind. I sent it to Bonnie and she loves the song. We’re looking forward to the day when we can all tour again. And of course one of my hopes and dreams is to go see her play a show and sit in on guitar on that.
The harp was the way I started it in my acoustic shows. But the original song was just a minor blues and I felt with the whole band, you just take advantage of the great grooves we had … and let the band do its thing to it on this version. And with the great Cindy Mizelle singing, we asked her to pass the harmony parts – which there’s nobody better – and just improvise, scat. … And that’s one case in point where “Too Many Miles” drops down after the last bridge, we sing together and all of a sudden Cindy just goes off and adds some beautiful improv scatting.
Cindy really shines on Weathered, especially on “Big Tears Fall.” Did she pick that one out to do the lead vocals on or was that always your call?
No, you know, I did. I gotta say Charlie, it’s very rare when the band that makes the record [Blue with Lou] will go on the road. It just doesn’t happen that often for me. Past Grin I think the only other time that happened was [for 1983 LP] Wonderland with Andy [Newmark] and Kevin [McCormick] again. It was a very lucky break to get them. And my brother Tommy had time to come. … We have the longest history of all and was so grateful to have him there.
I was just gonna go out as a four-piece and I had just assumed Cindy would be busy. She’s been out on the road a lot with Steely Dan … but Amy said there’s no harm in at least talking to Cindy about it. And we just got lucky she had time to do it.
You and Amy got to be good friends with her during the [Springsteen] Wrecking Ball Tour so you must have been so thrilled she was able to do this [2019 spring] tour for you.
Yeah, it was great! And we actually met her on the Seeger Sessions Band tour … but the Wrecking Ball Tour was where we really got to be good friends and got to work together a lot.
We’d often laugh because everyone would be getting ready for the soundcheck and out of the blue I’d get a text of a couple songs nobody had ever heard that Bruce wanted to take a poke at. And the next thing you know, Cindy and all the singers are in our room … frantically trying to get ready for the soundcheck while we’re on an iPad looking on YouTube trying to figure out what to do for some song we’d never heard. It was a lot of fun.
Continued here: Nils Lofgren Interview (Part Two).