ROCK ‘N’ ROLL VETERAN Nils Lofgren

Grin guitar god, Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young
stalwart and musical lifer Lofgren returns with his first album in five years.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

At this
point in a career that has now spanned five decades, singer, songwriter, and guitarist
Nils Lofgren is better known as the trampoline-jumping,
comically-large-hat-wearing, guitar-wielding member of Bruce Springsteen’s band
than he is for the string of critically-acclaimed solo albums that he released,
pre-E Street, between 1975 and ’85.

 

His status
as a buddy of the Boss notwithstanding, the fact is that Lofgren has the sort
of rockin’ credentials that younger musicians would sell their souls to Old
Scratch to put on a resume. A musical prodigy who studied jazz and classical
music as a child, Lofgren picked up a guitar at age 15 and dedicated his life
to rock ‘n’ roll, forming the acclaimed D.C. area band Grin at age 18. Grin’s
popular live shows brought the guitarist to the attention of Neil Young, who
brought Lofgren in to play on his classic After
The Gold Rush
album.

 

Grin
recorded three acclaimed albums circa 1971/72 but scored only a single minor hit
with the Lofgren song “White Lies.” In the wake of that band’s
break-up, Lofgren toured with Young and contributed to the singer’s Tonight’s The Night album. Lofgren
launched his solo career with the 1975 release of his self-titled debut, an
album notable for original songs like “Be Good Tonight,” “Back
It Up,” and “Keith Don’t Go,” a musical plea to Rolling Stones
guitarist Keith Richards. The following year’s Cry Tough won equal critical acclaim as the debut and experienced
similar modest sales, but subsequent releases like 1977’s I Came To Dance, 1979’s Nils,
and 1983’s Wonderland would result in
declining commercial fortunes, and in 1985 Lofgren accepted
Springsteen’s offer to join the E Street Band.

 

In between
Springsteen tours, Lofgren toured with Mrs. Springsteen, Patti Scialfa; as part
of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band; and again with Neil Young. During his lengthy
tenure playing behind the Boss, Lofgren largely put his solo career on the back
burner, but he still managed to release a handful of albums during the 1990s
and 2000s, studio efforts complimented by various compilations and live
material from the archives. Lofgren’s last album was 2006’s Sacred Weapon, and now five years later
the rock ‘n’ roll lifer returns with his 15th studio album, Old School.

 

Much like
fellow Bruce-buddy Joe Grushecky, Lofgren is a grizzled veteran of life in the
rock ‘n’ roll trenches, an elder statesman with a snowball’s chance in hell of
scoring that ever-elusive, career-making hit. Also like Joey G., however, Lofgren’s
role as cult favorite frees the artist from undue commercial expectations,
resulting in as honest and sincere a work as one can expect in these jaded
early years of the new millennium. Old
School
is exactly that, a collection of largely original material that
doesn’t stray far from Lofgren’s signature sound and breaks little new ground,
but rather wraps the listener in a familiar blanket of classic, guitar-driven
rock.

 

The title
track opens Old School, the song’s
funky groove and hot git licks barely concealing the singer’s lyrical laments
about these darned kids today, Congressional critters, reality TV, and
dysfunctional families. While Lofgren sounds like an old man screaming
“get off my lawn” at anybody walking down the street, the performance
sizzles with a fat rhythmic groove, timely blasts of horns, and a slight vocal
contribution from Foreigner’s Lou Gramm. The following “60 Is The New
18” fares slightly better. A mid-tempo rocker with a tempered perspective,
Lofgren is self-effacing at times, concerned at others, as he faces coming out
the other side of middle age with an edgy, rocking, jumpy new wavish sound that
hits the ears like it’s 1981 all over again.

 

Lofgren
finds his usual introspective groove by the time the lovely, acoustic
“Miss You Ray” rolls around. A heartfelt tribute to R&B legend
Ray Charles, the song is really much more: a fond reminiscence of life and family,
delivered in a gentle, quivering voice and accompanied by Lofgren’s elegant
fretwork. The charming “Love Stumbles On” veers the closest to
Lofgren’s beloved mid-1970s solo work, evoking a sort of musical and lyrical
cross between Grin, Grushecky’s Iron City Houserockers, and Springsteen’s early
albums. While the lyrics are Dylan oblique, there’s no mistaking Lofgren’s beautiful,
plaintive vocals and bittersweet guitarplay.

 

One of the
highlights of Old School is Lofgren’s
take on musician and songwriter Bruce McCabe’s hauntingly beautiful “Irish
Angel.” A romantic ballad of heartbreak delivered with a slight Celtic
lilt, Lofgren’s gruff, forlorn vocals are matched by his delicate piano and
Spanish-tinged fretwork. Another master stroke is provided by the muscled,
hard-edged soul-rock romp “Ain’t Too Many Of Us Left,” Lofgren joined
on vocals by Stax Records great Sam Moore. An autobiographical tale that tries
to make some sort of sense of aging in a rapidly-changing world, Moore’s
soulful backing vox add a wonderful gravitas behind Lofgren’s fierce guitar
riffs.

 

Old School closes with the mid-tempo “Why
Me,” another nod to Lofgren’s 1970s work, with maybe a dash of 1980s-era
Springsteen thrown in on the lyrical phrasing for good measure. The song asks
more questions, perhaps, than it answers, the protagonist staring down his
mortality with an almost fatalistic acceptance,
humble yet defiant. Lofgren’s guitar screams and howls angrily in the
background, lending a sort of Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that
good night” spirit to the song, the artist delivering one of the
strongest, emotionally-charged performances of his lengthy career.

 

While
Lofgren’s Old School won’t set the
charts on fire, it offers plenty to chew on for the guitarist’s long-time fans
while providing enough contemporary style and grace to attract some new
followers. Lofgren’s voice has dropped somewhat from his high-pitched teens and
20s, weathered into a more soulful instrument, and his guitar playing has never
been better, displaying great elegance and grace. An artist definitely ripe for
rediscovery, Old School is a vital,
engaging work by a rock ‘n’ roll veteran.  

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