The American musician Nils Lofgren is returning to the UK for a series of shows. Nils has normally found time to pop over to this side of the Atlantic on a solo tour once a year since 1973 and is glad to be back after an “unusually long three year break, but I had a good excuse, I had 26 months out with the E Street Band.” So it was The Boss to blame for keeping him away from our shores. I guess you can't argue with that, especially as The E Street Band were inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall Of Fame earlier this year; a suburb accolade to a hugely talented group of musicians.
Nils is thrilled to be returning to England and playing some of the intimate theatres and venues around the country, including The Union Chapel in Islington which is one of the best venues in London. “We're very excited to get back to the UK. I'm excited to get back to my own shows again, and there’s no better audience anywhere to present them to than the UK.” When he tells me this, I'm slightly taken aback that someone who has played stadiums around the world would relish performing in the UK. He explains why he feels this way about performing here. “Specifically for my shows they've been spectacular and very supportive.” He tells me that a lot of that connection to his English audiences comes from a history of being able to get out front after the show and meet his supporters. “I'll ask them (the venue) to keep the bar open. I'm happy to sit there and look everybody in the eye, say hello and see what they thought of the night. It's a very grass roots beautiful adventure that is unique to England because you can travel around for a couple of weeks and not need an aeroplane.”
Whilst there is something inherently nerve racking about performing live, when you can see the audiences reaction in an intimate setting it does change the dynamics of a performance and makes it personal. I can really sense the enthusiasm from Nils wanting to be up close with an audience and have that intimacy that is lacking from big arena tours. I'm curious to find out if he prefers performing in small venues to football stadiums.
“I can't say I prefer, they're different. When you are playing in these small venues where people are literally on top of you it's a bit easier to get lost in the music. For me I like to prepare and practice enough so I can shut my mind off as much as I can and just react with musical instincts to the energy of the audience. There's no easier place for that be a must than in the smaller venues.”
Nils has always been known for his energy and acrobatics live, but years of jumping off pianos, trampoline flips and playing basketball resulted in having hip replacements, so he's adding some new dynamics to his shows. “After destroying my hips I couldn’t play rough basketball or do trampoline flips any more, so I picked up tap dancing from my buddy Greg Valadez, an expert tap dancer, who actually dances in the show, plays trumpet, guitar, keyboards, sings and I've picked it up. I've gotten to be a beginner at it and I'll do it in the show once in a while.” It's great that Nils, who is such an energetic showman has found a different slant on his unique performance style. You can see Nils tap dancing in his latest video You In My Arms.
Earlier this year Nils released a musical retrospective of his 45 year career Face The Music. Compiled by Nils and his wife Amy, the compilation took a year and a half to put together. The finished result was 1 DVD and 9 CD's, two of which are full of bonus tracks including rarities and unreleased material. There's also a comprehensive 136 page booklet for fans to get their teeth into. Nils tells me he is really happy with the finished result calling it “a fabulous compilation of music which has largely been extinct.” With the advent of CD's, downloads and the fact that Nils has never had a hit single, the record companies had allowed the music to become out of print. Nils and Fantasy/Concord Music decided to redress the balance and make the music available again, which is an amazing accomplishment. *
Another huge accomplishment for Nils was joining Neil Young and Crazy Horse on making the seminal album After The Goldrush. He tells me how at the age of 17 whilst still with his band Grin, the lucky meeting with Neil came about. “We (Grin)were about to go to LA and I was sneaking backstage to get some advice from my musical heroes and I snuck back on Crazy Horse and Neil Young. He took an interest in me and gave me his guitar and I got to sing him some songs that he liked and he told me to look him up when I got to LA. True to his word he took us under his wing and his producer David Briggs produced all the Grin records. While we were making our rocky way through the LA music scene a year later at 18 he asked me to join the core band and make the After The Goldrush project, which was a great opportunity at any age. It was extraordinary.”
Nils was hired to play piano on the album but never considered himself to be a pianist. “When they wanted me to play piano it really threw me and I told them I'm not sure I'm the guy, but they pointed out my accordion history and were very confident that I could find some simple parts that would work. They had more faith in me than I did and it worked out.”
After The Goldrush is now regarded by many as one of the best albums of all time, but Grin failed to hit the big time and disbanded in 1974 after four albums. Nils went on to record a critically acclaimed début solo album in 1975 before joining the E Street Band nearly a decade later as a replacement for Steven Van Zandt. The rest, as they say is, history.
Anybody who's started to learn an instrument will tell you their frustrations with endless practising of scales and chords and never feeling like you are achieving anything and “not to have this awful three year journey of hell before you play anything that feels like music.” Nils' online guitar school for beginners and intermediate aims to give people the confidence to start playing music right way, whilst still practising. “The point of my guitar school is while you are doing all this hard and frustrating practice I give you a one finger blues lick you can play and I'll back you up and it sounds and feels like music immediately.” “Life's complicated, everyone’s getting challenged and overwrought with details so music should be a gift right out of the gate and that's the point of my music school.”
Neil Young has said that “listening to Nils play and sing has been an inspiration to me for many years.” Nils is no doubt an inspiration to other musicians too, so I asked him what advice he has for others. “Thanks to technology you don’t need a record company... Play in front of people whether it's professionally or just for a hobby. Take your time, learn how to write songs, record them – don't sell your house to do it, and stay inspired by the journey.”
Nils' humility, graciousness coupled with his virtuoso musicianship has made his followers continually inspired my his music. He has plans to record a new album next year, but until then we have the UK tour to look forward to and we are glad to have him back.
*Nils gives me a heads up for anyone wanting to purchase the set, to go to nilslofgren.com rather than another well known internet trader, a) because it's cheaper, and b) copies from Nils' website come signed and with an exclusive pin featuring the cover art!