Interview: Nils Lofgren says the current E Street Band tour represents ‘the best shows we’ve ever done’

Island Packet – When discussing the E Street Band in its current form, Nils Lofgren is unequivocal.

“From my perspective, we’re doing the best shows we’ve ever done,” the guitarist said from his Arizona home after the close of the band’s recent triumphant swing through Europe. “This is just such a spectacular period for (Bruce Springsteen) and the band.”

Lofgren is one of four guitarists on E Street these days, counting Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt and Patti Scialfa. Having just completed three nights at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, the band is gearing up for a tour-closing 12-show dash that begins tonight in Jacksonville, continues Saturday in Charleston — what’s believed to be the first Lowcountry show in more than 30 years — and closes Aug. 30 with a slot at the Harley-Davidson anniversary festival in Milwaukee. (And earlier this week, the New York Post revived the oft-floated rumor that Springsteen will play halftime at next year’s Super Bowl in Tampa.)

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As is customary, the press certainly agrees with Lofgren’s assessment (“Bruce proves music can save your soul,” said London’s Daily Telegraph of the band’s recent stop there, in one of the more thoughtfully restrained quotes we could dig up), but Lofgren demurs that such performances come out of simply doing what they’ve done for as long as they have. “(The band has) the biggest toolbox in rock ’n’ roll, and Bruce is the master carpenter,” he said.

That’s a skill that comes in handy this year, as Springsteen has taken to devoting sizable chunks of the show to audibles and requests that are collected from fans down low who’ve brought signs.

“(Bruce) comes back from the crowd with 30 signs, this big pile,” Lofgren said with a laugh. “He’s like a college kid rifling through looking for the right T-shirt. I try to look over his shoulder to get a little heads-up, or look at Clarence (Clemons) or Max (Weinberg) or Charlie (Giordano, who’s taken over organ and accordion duties for the late Danny Federici, who passed away this spring).”

In the end, the setlist, Lofgren said, is sort of like a friendly skeleton to start with, and that’s about it. The requests range from the show-stoppers — “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” et al. — to long-lost rarities like the Mitch Ryder cover, “Little Latin Lupe Lu” (played earlier this month in Boston), “Pretty Flamingo” and “Jersey Girl” (both played during the Giants Stadium stand) and vintage rockers like the “Hungry Heart” B-side “Held Up Without A Gun,” which only the fairly obsessed could be reasonably expected to remember.

(For his part, Lofgren’s flagship solo during the show, which generally arrives during the end of “Because the Night,” is a monster tour de force that often includes some combination of spinning, playing behind his head and falling down.)

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‘A SWING GUY’

Lofgren initially joined the band after the departure of Van Zandt in 1984, and performed on the massive “Born in the U.S.A.” tour and the “Tunnel of Love Express” tour in 1988. Springsteen broke up the band in 1989 and kept it on hiatus until 1999, at which time both Lofgren and Van Zandt rejoined and Lofgren figured it might be time to learn some new tricks.

“We all realized we had four guitar players, so I started to challenge myself as a swing guy,” he said, “I picked up the bottleneck, the dobro, whatever I could use to bring extra useful touches to the songs.”

Those kinds of tricks are something that Lofgren is offering to teach via one of his off-E Street projects, an online guitar course available through his Web site, www.nilslofgren.com. “(The lessons) start by teaching things you can do with one finger that sound like music and is fun,” he said. “It’s gymnastics for the hands, sure, but once you start to have a good time with it, you want to keep playing along.”

Additionally, he spent part of 2007 conceiving and assembling “The Loner — Nils Sings Neil,” a record of Neil Young covers that was born, he said, of just playing around the house.

“I would have never thought to do this; this was my manager’s idea,” said Lofgren, who played keyboards on Young’s classic “After the Gold Rush” at the age of 18 and guitar and vocals on his “Tonight’s the Night” five years later. “One of the most popular items on my site are the acoustic live CD and DVD, and he suggested I do a set of my favorite Neil Young songs.”

So Lofgren spent two weeks trying out over two dozen tracks — “just singing to the cats and dogs,” he said — and eventually something took root. “I noticed a few of the songs made a transition from decent karaoke to something more special,” including takes on “Harvest Moon,” “Like A Hurricane” and the title track.

He customarily clams up when discussing future plans, insisting there’s “never been” a plan for his trips on and off of E Street. (That hasn’t stopped the traditionally lively Springsteen online rumor mill from postulating everything from the Super Bowl halftime show to a theory that the next album is already in the can.)

But for the time being, Lofgren and the band have just one goal in mind, and it’s a familiar one at that: “Our job is to go out night to night and do the best work we can do.”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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