Nils Lofgren near-solo – he’s accompanied tonight by multi-instrumentalist Gregg Varlotta – is a very different thing from what one might imagine from his “day job”. Shortly before heading off for his UK tour celebrating fifty years on the road Nils Lofgren could be found blasting it out alongside Neil Young in a reconvened Crazy Horse. Nils Lofgren is, of course, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer for his long tenure in the E-Street band. We’re talking rock royalty here, and yet solo Nils Lofgren is relaxed in his own multi-instrumentalist abilities and self-effacing to the point of being humble. And he has so much to not be humble about, demonstrating his guitar mastery in both acoustic and full electric forms, there’s fast picking, there’s amazing power and there’s subtle slide. And there’s much more too over a two hour set – no interval – which wove across his musical career and was full of easy charm and anecdotes. With fifty years of music making to call on, and clearly also having fantastic recall, Nils Lofgren can have a varied set list most nights. Sure, there are a few staples which are pretty much guaranteed – but not all the ones you might think of – but there were a couple of songs that got their first outings so far on this tour and a couple more that have only appeared once or twice already. ‘Code of the Road’ is one of the staples, an epic of guitar solos framed in a song that mythologises the itinerant rock lifestyle. It has Lofgren, in his customary high crown hat and a swirling long coat, striking guitar god poses, his foot up on an amp as he plays at a dizzingly fast speed.
As a preamble to ‘Sticks and Stones’ there is a musing on how all countries have their problems before ruefully admitting that “we’ve got you beat right now”. Nils Lofgren is not a fan of Trump, which is a thing no-one can tire of hearing, but he also has an infectious faith in the fundamental goodness of the majority of people. For all it’s talk of “going too far” and the hurtfulness of words ‘Sticks & Stones’ is actually a song of failing love, something that is a feature of Nils Lofgren’s music – there’s a lot of talk of love but more often than not it’s with a refrain of losing in love. Take the sprightly ‘You’, played solo on acoustic guitar, where Lofgren laments a lack in an otherwise perfect relationship “Ah, you, you come down like early rain / and you wash away my every pain, and you / You have everything I need / Except a burning love for me”. Or the sublime ‘Girl in Motion’ where the positivity associated with movement is subverted by the revelation that she’s not just moving, she’s leaving. It’s gentle and full of acceptance, tinged with regret, and a full acknowledgement of where the blame for all this lies – it’s that rare thing, a rock song with a mature eye. Again played solo, layers of sound are built up with an array of pedals – but there’s no great theatrics about this, a quick tap and there’s the rhythm loop for Nils to play an exquisite high neck solo over. When it finally comes, signalling the approach of the end, ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is played acoustically – initially it’s almost folky with so many popping harmonics, but then catches fire with a rocking pulse. It’s an extraordinary reshaping and reinvention of what is a solid classic of a song.
There are songs with Lofgren at a keyboard – including a stately reading of ‘Goin’ Back’, which featured on his first solo album. There’s a blues which starts with an extended slow harp – and this really is a harp, not a harmonica – introduction. The harp, it is mentioned, is something of a recent addition to his repertoire of instruments. The contrast of the slow, gentle but precise harp playing with the blues guitar part that follows is a stunningly effective juxtaposition. An old Grin track – the gunslinger tale ‘Rusty Gun’ – is brought to dramatic life by Greg Varlotta’s trumpet accompaniment, sweeping us dramatically South of the Border. ‘No Mercy’ is a peculiar song – seen from the upcoming boxer’s point of view as he demolishes the much older reigning champion it’s big on empathy – and by the end of the fight the kid’s crying as he realises how he’s demolished another’s life. It’s very human in that respect, and seem’s appropriate for Nils Lofgren himself – but it’s not the killer attitude. It’s a great song, nonetheless.
The casually approached encore has the road crew strapping Nils Lofgren into an accordion – an instrument he started playing at the age of six and has retained a mastery of as he reels off one of his old competition pieces ‘The Flight of the Bunblebee’. It’s a jaw dropping moment – in a good way. A Nils Lofgren gig is a bit like attending the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: anything can happen. Earlier, ‘Mud in your Eye’ had utilised Greg Varlotta as percussionist – through frantic tap dancing. Anything goes to use Nils Lofgren’s many talents – and it’s all done without Ego. It’s not showing off it’s just different aspects of the main man’s musical journey. There’s a joyous closer of ‘Shine Silently’ one of the finest “on the road” rock songs which could have been designed for a rapturous response “just another room / just another town / same old crazy people hanging around”. It also sums up the whole of the gig “nothing left to say / nothing left to prove”. The proof’s been all around us that Nils Lofgren is an undiminished talent, playing, vocals and engaging stage presence. The tour continues through the end of May. And a final snippet shared mid-gig: there’s a new album in preparation that should be out next year, and the plan is that the next UK tour will be with a full band. Can’t wait.
Code of the road
Some Must Dream
Sticks and Stones
Girl in Motion
Too Many Miles
Keith Don’t Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin)
Mud in your Eye
Accordian Melody – Wedding theme from the Godfather / Flight of the Bumblebee
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