In the nearly 50 years he's played music professionally, veteran guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren has graced many Milwaukee venues old and new.
For a majority of that span, he's been a member of Bruce Springsteen's backing band The E Street Band. He came aboard in 1984 to replace Steven Van Zandt in time for the "Born in the USA" tour and played with the band throughout the '80s. In the late '90s, Springsteen revived the E Street Band, and Van Zandt rejoined them.
The band's current tour, which stops at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on March 3, is in support of "The Ties That Bind: The River" box set, an expansion of Springsteen's 1980 album "The River."
Lofgren has traveled many roads to reach this point. When he was in his late teens, he toured with his band Grin and caught the attention of Neil Young. Young was very supportive of Lofgren and his band and later asked him to play on several of his albums including "After the Gold Rush." He also appeared on the Crazy Horse debut album and has worked with a variety of musicians including Ringo Starr, Jerry Lee Lewis, Del Shannon, Carl Perkins, Lou Reed, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Paul Rodgers, Stephen Stills, Cab Calloway, Willie Nelson, Rick James and George Benson.
He also has released a number of solo albums. Lofgren recently celebrated his career with the recently released live album "UK2015 Face the Music Live," which features songs recorded from his UK tour with his longtime collaborator Greg Varlotta, and 2014 10-disc box set "Face the Music."
Prior to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street's Band's stop here, OnMilwaukee talked to Lofgren from his hotel room in New York about why "The River" is a special album, finding success in music from an early age and how his countless experiences have shaped him as a musician.
OnMilwaukee: How's the tour going so far?
Nils Lofgren: The tour's been going wonderfully and it's great to play with the E Street Band again. We have a stripped down band which is something we haven't had in awhile. It's going really well.
What's your favorite Milwaukee memory with or without Bruce
I've had a lot of shows in Milwaukee with great audiences there. I remember with Bruce we did the Harley Davidson 100 year anniversary a number of years back, which was fabulous. There's a great club there, but I forget the name of it. I've been to Milwaukee dozens of times, and it's always been fabulous. I'm excited to get back there and do a show with E Street.
What do you like best about playing songs from "The Ties that Bind: The River" collection on this tour?
I was in California living in L.A., and I ran into Bruce when he finished "The River," and he played it for me in the studio. And I always remember feeling the E Street Band had gotten the sizzle and energy of their live shows into the grooves of the record, past the brilliant songwriting and playing. They're brilliant songs, and we play them in order as the main set piece. "The River" is very powerful. I'm really enjoying Bruce and Stevie singing together too. They're featured as that rough rock duet that they're so great at, and that's really featured in "The River." So I just enjoy being out with the E Street Band again, and we have a handful of shows ahead of us.
You were born in Chicago. With growing up there and the Midwest, how did that have an impact on you musically?
Yes, I lived there for about eight or nine years. Then I moved out to Maryland outside of Washington D.C. I started playing accordion when I was five years old. Every kid on the block on the south side of Chicago where I lived played accordion. And my parents paid for lessons for like nine years. It was a great musical backdrop.
I kept studying when I got to Maryland. And as a teenager, my brother Tom started playing guitar and showed me some chords. He gave me my first guitar lessons. And I just started playing guitar as a hobby.
By the time I was 17, I hit the road with my band Grin professionally and went to L.A. looking for a record deal, and wound up hooking up with Neil Young and getting to make the "After the Gold Rush" album when I was 18. I would have never imagine that 48 years later I have this beautiful career being in bands and singing my own songs. I've been blessed with making a long run with making music.
What was it like being asked by Neil at such a young age to play on "After the Gold Rush"?
It was a bit overwhelming, but I had met Neil in Washington D.C. when he was on the road with Crazy Horse. So when I got to LA his producer David Briggs moved me into his house and took my band Grin under his wing. So I got to know Neil and David very well because I lived there in Topanga Canyon. And a year later when I was 18 they asked me to work on the "After the Gold Rush" album. So having that year with them as friends getting to know them ... even though it was a bit overwhelming, I feel that these people were in my corner that I could trust and they could trust in me. I was very grateful for the opportunity.
What's the biggest difference between working with Bruce with other acts you've played with?
Other than the sounds of their voices and guitar styles, there are a lot of similarities between Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and others. There's more similarities than differences. The similarities are they let their musicians have a lot of freedom. They want you to be inspired and in the music to come up with your own ideas that serve the songs. There's a lot of healthy musical freedom and camaraderie on their tours. I love that about all of them.
You joined the E Street Band just in time for the "Born in the USA" tour. What was it like joining for that acclaimed album?
Yes, one month before the "Born in the USA" tour I joined the band. We had a jam session for a couple days and Bruce offered me the job. The guys have been a thrill to work with all these years. I used to buy tickets to see the band play in the '70s and '80s. So it was a great honor to now be on stage with them and very happy we're still out doing shows together.
Were those the biggest stages you played at that point?
Well, in '79, I did a stadium tour opening for The Who all over Europe. So we played some of the big stages there. And in '83, I did a tour with Neil Young, and we played big stages all over Europe. So I had some experience playing the stadiums, and halfway through the "Born in the USA" tour because of ticket demand of that great record, Bruce and the E Street Band moved into stadiums. That experience served me well. I was fairly comfortable with that transition. It went really well, and of course Bruce and the band got great at it. And we've been playing stadiums and sports arenas on and off ever since.
Any other favorite tours?
I just finished a tour in Europe with Greg Varlotta, who is a great player. It's an acoustic-type duo. We put out a live record, "U.K. 2015 Face the Music Tour." I had also put out a 10-disc retrospective "Face the Music" with 45 years of recordings with 40 bonus recordings. You can get them at nilslofgren.com. So that's the latest record I've made, and I've enjoyed being on the road in England, Scotland and Ireland singing for people. It was my wife Amy's idea to record the shows in January in England. She thought they were the best shows I've done. So we recorded them and have them for people who wanted them. It's a great representation of what I'm doing live now.
Both of those collections present a really nice overview of your career. What were the biggest things you learned going back to select the songs?
Well, I was surprised by how much I had done that I had forgotten about because I tend to focus on today and tomorrow. It was interesting to go back and look at all the recordings I had made, and we found a lot of basement tapes, probably over 100 of them in variety, and we picked about 40 of them to share. It was a great stroll down memory lane for me to assemble the best of my recorded works over the last 48 years or so and share it with people. I'm very grateful we got to do it with Fantasy Records. I mostly stuck with the original recordings and picked the best versions.
Why do you think the E Street Band has been able to keep going strong all these years?
Well it starts with the songwriting and the band leader. Bruce's songwriting is one of the best collections in history. He's as great of band leader and performer as there's ever been. We all have a passion for playing live, and it's something that's very dear to all of us and still love to do. I think that's what makes it work all these years.
Clarence Clemons passed away almost five years ago, and I imagine that it must have tough to keep going as a band. But the band has been kept going strong despite setbacks like that.
Yeah that was horrible. Clarence was a dear friend. It was just an awful loss. On my 60th birthday, Amy and I were in Florida to bury Clarence and say goodbye. I still feel him with us every night in spirit. I sing a song "Miss You C," it's on my live album, about Clarence and the E Street and all of our losses. And the message of the song is that as you lose family and friends, the grief can blind you to what's left, and you have to work to keep your mind and heart open to the people and family that are still left as you absorb all these losses. So I've been singing that song in my set list and will continue to. I feel like Clarence is there in spirit every night I play.
What do you like about playing guitar with Steven Van Zandt?
Steve was there for all the original records. So it's great to have his playing and especially his singing. Nobody sings with Bruce like Steven does. They have a rough and raw rock duet sound that's spectacular and very soulful. It's fun to play rhythm guitar and play a different guitar part and have Bruce and Steven do their original parts because they sing so great together, and that's one of the highlights of "The River" tour to me.
You play other instruments besides guitar. How do you adjust your playing from band to band?
It's really nice when I work in other bands as it gives me another perspective. Instead of playing lead guitar I play rhythm, pedal steel, dobro, bottleneck, lap steel, six-string banjo. When you play different instruments and backup parts, it gives you a different perspective. And I sing a lot of harmony vocals which is very different from being a band leader. It's very healthy for me musically to be in these great bands with a different perspective like that.
What's the biggest thing you've learned working with so many diverse musicians? Does that help keep you on your toes musically?
Yes you always learn when you play with other great players and my own bands too. I like to work with musicians that are certainly better at their instrument and can surprise me with their great ideas. And, of course, in bands you do the same thing for the band leader. You come with parts that are emotional that get their music across to the audience.
What do you get from playing solo that you don't get with a band?
I guess just appreciation for my songwriting. And that people will want to show up and hear my songs. It's all very similar in that it's an opportunity to reach people and touch them with some musical magic. Hopefully there's some inspiration through the music that lingers in their lives as they leave the show. That's the job whether in someone else's band or my own. And we try to do that every night.
It sounds like you're working on a new solo album.
Well I just started writing. I'm just at the beginning so it's going to be a long time. But I'm hoping in the next year or so I'll have enough songs written to start recording the next record. That's my next step after we finish the E Street tour.
Anything in particular you're looking forward to playing Milwaukee this time?
I look forward to the great crowds that have always been in Milwaukee and am counting on another one when we come through. We'll do a great show for you.