By Scott Cunningham // Nils Lofgren appears with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Tuesday at the Moda Center
"I've been very blessed and lucky," says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nils Lofgren.
"As a kid when I started out at 17, I didn't know anything and I was nervous and certainly I wouldn't have been greedy enough to think 48 years later I'd be getting ready for a great show and a great band," he explains from his hotel room in Milwaukee before performing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Lofgren has turned his luck, good fortune, and uncanny timing into a musical journey magnificent beyond any of his wildest dreams. In the process, he has carved out a solid place for himself in rock history.
Outside of music circles, he is best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. While magical in its own right, backing up Springsteen is only part of Lofgren's story.
Early into his senior year, Lofgren dropped out of high school in Garrett Park, Maryland, and hopped a flight to New York with dreams of rock and roll in his head. In order to learn what he could from touring musicians, he crafted the fine art of sneaking backstage, meeting as many people as he could.
One of his first New York experiences was at the Filmore East, where he somehow found himself watching Eric Bourdon of the Animals warming up. Bourdon's drummer had been playing guitar during the impromptu session and noticed Lofgren admiring from a corner.
To Lofgren's amazement, the drummer handed his guitar to him and invited him to play. He popped the tab off a beer can to use as a pick and dove in, keeping up with Bourdon while learning the valuable lesson that communicating the soul and feeling of the music was more important than the gear at hand.
His New York journey was interrupted after a mere eight days when he contracted pneumonia, forcing him to sheepishly return home. Although his parents strongly advocated for him to return to school, Lofgren had made up his mind that making it as a musician was the life he wanted to pursue.
Forming a trio with friends Bob Berberich and George Daly and calling themselves Grin, the three began writing original material while playing as many gigs as possible. They even auditioned at the Filmore West at the same time as a young Springsteen and his early band Steel Mill. A star, as they say, was born.
Shortly thereafter, the group headed for Los Angeles, moving into a home they shared with Neil Young, whom Lofgren had gotten to know in Washington, D.C. after once again finagling his way backstage.
Lofgren and Young quickly meshed, and Lofgren took on an integral role in shaping the sound of Young's seminal After the Gold Rush, playing piano and guitar on the album. It is Lofgren who plays piano on Southern Man, sharing an extended solo with Young in the first half of the song, with Young playing electric guitar in the left channel and Lofgren in the right.
Since then Lofgren has amassed an incredible body of work that continues to grow. In 2014 he was approached by Fantasy and Concord Records to assemble a collection of his work. The result was a whopping 10 disc box-set titled Face the Music containing an incredible 189 tracks, including 20 on DVD plus a 138 page booklet.
Compiling the material for Face the Music was a daunting process. "My theme was to not ever figuratively have to get off the couch and move a needle on the record. It was very difficult because I just wanted it to play. That wasn't easy to do," Lofgren explains. "But it was just a gift of a job, because I don't listen to my old music."
By comparison, putting together last year's Face the Music: Live was a much easier task. Recorded as part of his Eurpoean tour in early 2015, the disc is a wonderful complement to the box set.
But, it was a project that almost didn't happen because he never thought of it. Lofgren tries to visit Europe yearly and was half way through a tour last January when his wife Amy made the observation that the shows were the best she had ever heard him play. "She implored us to get the last half (of the tour) recorded...it was her brainchild."
Despite the enormity of the task, working on the back to back projects was a delight for Lofgren. He recalls that it was "just a very touching stroll down memory lane and a lot of work that was very enjoyable because at the end of it I got to take most of what is out of print and forgotten and extinct and resurrect the best of it and share it."
Recording the live album in Europe has special significance for Lofgren, as well. "I (first) went over in the late 60's to the mythical London where the British invasion was from and The Beatles and the Stones. Just to have a visit."
Lofgren has always held the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in high regard, especially Keith Richards. "They were how I discovered Stax Volt and Motown. And Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Little Richard."
When Bruce Springsteen plays the Moda Center on March 22 as part of The River Tour, Lofgren will be there alongside him in the E Street Band, which he joined in 1984 after Steven Van Zandt left the band. Lofgren's connection to The River predates his joining the band, however.
In early 1980, Lofgren was staying at the fabled Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles when he ran into Springsteen one morning. "He said, 'Hey, I just finished mixing this double album called The River. Do you want to tag along and listen to it? I'm just going to do a private listening for myself.' And I went with him and got to hear the whole thing."
"Well before The River was released I was certainly one of the first people to hear it outside the band. Then to play it all these decades and know to present the double album as a whole is just a very cool thing and it's always an honor play with the band any night, anywhere."
Springsteen is famous for, shall we say, improvising set lists and keeping the band guessing as to what is next. "I don't know what's next ever. It's quite maddening and exciting and reckless and fun."
Describing The River Tour, Lofgren says, "I keep looking at (Bruce), watching him get off the mike. I keep getting ready to charge in and go what are we doing and I realize oh wait a minute, I know what we're doing."
"To present this album as a whole is a very powerful thing. As Bruce describes it every night, 'All right I'm an adult and I want to be part of this world instead of outside of it and what does that mean.' It's just brilliant to participate in that as a member of the band."
After nearly 50 years on the road, Lofgren's enthusiasm for his work hasn't diminished. "I love playing live music, whether I'm the leader of the band or in the band, if I can't be with my family (which) actually makes the show even more important for me."
"With E Street for 3 1/2 hours, I get to use a gift I didn't ask for that I've worked at to do something with and share it with people and hopefully spread some positivity and healing through the music with the audience that will linger with the audience as they leave."
Lofgren also describes playing with E Street as a respite of sorts, allowing him to return to his solo work with fresh eyes and perspective.
"I find that after a run with E Street or the bands with Neil Young and Ringo that when I get back to my own music there's this extra energy. You feel refreshed, because you've taken a break from your own thing but you're not musically rusty because you've been deep down in another musical project."
After the current run with E Street ends, he plans to return to writing new material, hoping to record sometime in 2017.
Playing in Portland will also be a homecoming of sorts, as Lofgren's father was raised in Astoria. "My grandfather and his buddies came there as immigrants and built Astoria way back in the early part of the last century. My dad came over as a three year old and grew up as an American."
"I have fond memories of that area of the country and Portland has always been a great rock town and a great audience so we'll do a great show for you."
ON TOUR: Nils Lofgren appears in Portland Tuesday March 22 at the Moda Center with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As of this writing, tickets are still available.