For over fifty years, Nils Lofgren has been astonishing audiences with his magical wizardry on the guitar. At the age of just nineteen, he was a key contributor to Neil Young’s classic ‘After the Gold Rush’ and this experience helped to launch a glittering career in music. Hugely respected for his work with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since the 1980s, Lofgren consistently delivers tremendously high levels of technical ability, along with passion and musical freedom. After four albums with his band Grin in the early 1970s, Lofgren embarked on a solo career, beginning with his critically-acclaimed self-titled 1975 debut, which was described as, “…the best rock album this year,” by the influential Jon Landau in his Rolling Stone review. Over the years, Lofgren has shared studios or stages with the likes of Lou Gramm, Lou Reed, Patti Scialfa, Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis. Twice, he was invited to be part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band alongside Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Back in the day, he was well-known for his on-stage athletics, playing the guitar while literally somersaulting on a trampoline. This is no ordinary musician.
Although revered for his other-worldly fretboard skills, there is much more to Nils Lofgren. His singing voice is simply gorgeous, silken smooth and full of emotional warmth. Also, he is a fine songwriter, equally comfortable creating out-and-out rockers and melodic ballads. Lofgren is especially adept at arranging extended songs with engrossing sonic interludes and circular musical journeys, making his many live albums a particular joy. Those classic songs seem to change and grow each time they’re played. Indeed, it’s on the stage that Lofgren’s talent truly shines. One of my favourite gig experiences was being in the middle of the front row, smiling from start to finish as this wonderful multi-instrumentalist played the harp and the accordion, tap-danced the percussion and soared with his mesmerising guitar. Lofgren’s 1997 ‘Acoustic Live’ album is a stunning example of his talent, featuring new versions of many great songs. If you’ve never listened to his work before, start here.
As a writer for AUK, I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing Nils twice (here and here); his musical journey is fascinating and he’s a delightful, open person to chat to. His heart and warmth come through in his music and songs. When I decided to use ‘Essentials’ to feature ten of Nils Lofgren’s songs, I thought the simplest way to begin would be by putting together a playlist of personal favourites. It soon became clear this wouldn’t work as, within five minutes, there were more than thirty songs there. Trimming down to just ten was a headache-inducing challenge but here it is. Inevitably, there are many fan-favourites missing from this list but, if you’re new to the guitar-maestro’s work, then these songs are a good place to start. Enjoy.
Number 10: ‘Moon Tears’ from ‘Grin 1+1’ by Grin (1972)
Here’s a great early rocker from Lofgren’s Grin, full of energy and dynamism. The sound is full and powerful and euphoric, despite the fact that it was written as a heartbroken lament to lost love. Lofgren’s singing is hard and edgy, gritty and desolate, while his guitar is stirring with a typically vibrant solo sweeping through the song. At just over two minutes, it’s a short, direct song that explodes into life and leaves you wanting more: a perfectly-crafted song worthy of any of the great rock acts of the early 1970s.
Number 9: ‘No Mercy’ from ‘Nils’ (1979)
In ‘No Mercy’, the changes in pace and volume almost seem to reflect the passing rounds and the ebb and flow of the boxing match narrated through the verses. Engineer Brian Christian visited an inner-city bout to sample the sounds of a speed bag, anthem and bell that can be heard at the beginning and in the middle of the song, lending it an authenticity to match the lyrics all about the harshness and brutality of the ring: “I hungered this title but now it don’t seem right // I fight back tears while I destroy his life.” In his ‘Face the Music’ box set notes, Lofgren remembers working the corner for martial artist Danny Boccagno and the contrast between the viciousness of the fights and the honour, respect and dignity of the fighters. This inspired the song’s broader theme: even good people sometimes need to inflict harm on others in order to survive or protect their own. For this 1979 solo album, Lofgren teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin, who was known for his work with the likes of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Lou Reed. It was Ezrin who suggested collaborating with Lou Reed, which would lead to co-writing a set of songs and the great 2019 album ‘Blue with Lou’ decades later.
Number 8: ‘Goin’ Back’ from ‘Nils Lofgren’ (1975)
The closing song from Lofgren’s acclaimed 1975 solo debut is just a classic tune. There’s an insistent rolling rhythm and flowing keys, over which Lofgren delivers a softly wistful vocal, almost dreamy in its nostalgic tones as he sings of, “…goin’ back to the days // when I was young enough to know the truth.” As time passes and our innocence fades, our recollections of youth hold something magical over us and that sense of what we’ve lost is bittersweet, “I can recall the time // When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to my best friends.” Lofgren captures those feelings in ageless melody.
Number 7: ‘Keith Don’t Go (Ode to The Glimmer Twin)’ from ‘Nils Lofgren’ (1975)
‘Keith Don’t Go’ was written as a letter to one of Lofgren’s musical heroes, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, urging him to take care of himself during those turbulent years. It’s a way of saying thanks for the inspiration and joy Richards gifted the world with his music. Lofgren’s riffs and and the driving percussion are urgent and insistent and this remains a fan-favourite. However, it’s worth noting that the song sounds even more ominous when Lofgren performs it as a slower acoustic version; played this way it has the feel of something more plaintive, a desperate plea. ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is one of Lofgren’s most powerful, impactful songs.
Number 6: ‘Like Rain’ from ‘Grin’ by Grin (1971)
This song, from the first of Lofgren’s albums with his band Grin, grows and ebbs and flows in absorbing layers, including his accordion. It’s an early example of his romantic lyricism and ability to craft gorgeously melodic, sweeping ballads. We hear both sides of Lofgren’s vocal: the smooth style familiar from most of his songs and a gruffer, grittier tone at key moments, over tinkling piano, swirling keys, powerful drums and Tom Lofgren’s guitar. ‘Like Rain’ is the opening track on this tremendously dynamic album, full of adventurous sounds that might be called country-rock. In the brilliant notes that accompany Lofgren’s career-collecting box-set ‘Face the Music’, he says of this song: “Still one of my best songs and mainstays of my live performances. Wrote it in my old room I shared with brother Tom at my parent’s Wilmett Court home in Bethesda, MD. Only 17, I seemed to get lucky, tapping into the feeling that beautiful relationships seemed an impossibility in our crazy world, and at best, would come and go, emotionally and inevitably.” It’s incredibly mature songwriting from the young Nils Lofgren.
Number 5: ‘Speakin’ Out’ from ‘Tonight’s the Night’ by Neil Young (1975)
Brilliantly atmospheric, this song, from Neil Young’s sixth album, meanders through various musical interludes all held together by Young’s rhythmic piano. The key moment for Lofgren fans is just after the three-minute mark, when Young says, “Alright Nils,” setting up the first time anyone other than Neil Young himself played a guitar solo on a Neil Young song. And it’s pretty special. The tones and fluttering fingers are distinctively Nils. ‘Speakin’ Out’ is simply a great song, made only greater by Nils Lofgren.
Number 4: ‘Girl in Motion’ from ‘Silver Lining’ (1991)
On ‘Girl in Motion’, Lofgren delivers one of his finest vocals, a gorgeously catchy and absorbing melody that remains with you long after listening. It’s a song that’s also always a highlight on his many live recordings, a song that seems to flex and grow during his shows into something hypnotic and spectacular, whether performed acoustic or electric. ‘Girl in Motion’ envelopes the listener in sweeping currents of guitar, modulating, bending and twisting. It’s the perfect example of how he finds the dramatically fine balance between guitar that feels free, expressive and inventive and yet remains within the melodic structure of the song, growing from it and within it rather than added onto it.
Number 3: ‘Wonderland’ from ‘Wonderland’ (1983)
In ‘Wonderland’, Nils Lofgren describes the world as it should be: a world in which, “…the boys and girls like to dance on the way to school // And even the pretty girls think that being nice is cool.” It’s a straightforward message, calling for more compassion and less conflict and judgement. In today’s social media-driven environment, lines like, “And you don’t get singled out every time you’re wrong or right,” are still especially resonant. The original is a catchy slice of well-crafted pop-rock. But it’s definitely worth checking out the multiple other versions to be found on live albums, like ‘Acoustic Live’, in which the bright strum shimmers alongside Lofgren’s heartfelt lyrics.
Number 2: ‘Valentine’ from ‘Silver Lining’ (1991)
Built on an insistent, grooving rhythm and engrossing guitar interludes, ‘Valentine’ is particularly notable for the way Lofgren’s voice combines with that of Bruce Springsteen, who guests on the song. They work off each other perfectly, two great artists, whose vocals genuinely complement one another. Kevin McCormick’s clean production highlights the sheer quality of Lofgren’s guitar-work, which always feels so natural in the context of the song, never intrusive or like an optional extra. It just flows and the last couple of minutes are simply exquisite. People will remember the harmony vocal with Springsteen but it’s Lofgren’s playing that sets this apart. ‘Valentine’ is an example of the fine songwriting and musicality for which fans and other artists love Nils Lofgren.
Number 1: ‘Black Books’ from ‘Acoustic Live’ (1997) and ‘Damaged Goods’ (1995)
‘Black Books’ is a song full of resignation, a dark country narrative that delivers genuine heartbreak and sorrow. Lofgren’s voice aches as he tells his tale: “One last time from Freddie’s Joint // We drove out to Lover’s Point // Shared our last kiss eye to eye // Spoke of tender times long past // Said they weren’t meant to last // Too many different needs to satisfy // She wants new shoulders to cry on // New back seat to lie on // And she always gets her way.” The original on ‘Damaged Goods’ is an absorbing song but it’s the version on Lofgren’s acclaimed ‘Acoustic Live’ album that remains one of my all-time favourites. His fluid guitar solo, fingers sweeping up and down the fretboard, is a natural, growing, organic thing.