Guitarist Nils Lofgren shares wisdom that anyone who doesn't feel enough like a leader should hear
Nils Lofgren is the rare musician who's more well-known as a band member than as a bandleader. When you play a key role on such albums as Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" and Lou Reed's "The Bells," that's your fate.
But Lofgren's work as a bandleader is much prized by critics and fellow musicians. His 2014 10-disc box set, "Face the Music," for example, includes accolades from not only Young and Springsteen, but also Bono, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, critic Dave Marsh and many more.
Lofgren, 67, grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and lived with his first band, Grin, in Washington, D.C., and Warrenton, Virginia. He has been in Scottsdale, Arizona, for 22 years but regularly returns home to visit family, friends and longtime fans.
Far from resenting the fact that his fame as a band member has eclipsed his fame as a bandleader, Lofgren is glad he has been able to thrive in both roles. One helps the other, he insists. He recalls the thrill, and the relief, he felt when producer David Briggs invited him as an 18-year-old to join Young's band for 1970's "After the Gold Rush" album.
"I remember driving through Topanga Canyon in David's little Volkswagen Beetle," Lofgren recalls by phone from Arizona, "thinking it was great to not be in charge, to just be a member of the band. ... When I'm playing with Neil or Bruce, I get to do things I don't get to do as a leader: play rhythm guitar, play pedal steel and lap steel and sing harmony."
It's precisely because Lofgren spends half his life as a bandleader that he's so valuable as a support musician. As a singer-songwriter himself, he knows when to pump up a lyric and when to stay out of its way. And after he's toured in someone else's band, he feels refreshed and eager to get back to his songs.
"'Absence makes the heart grow fonder,' as Ray Charles sang in 'Crying Time,'" Lofgren says. "You think, 'Gee, I haven't done my own music in a while. ... I've got that edge again. I've got a new batch of songs that I'm ready to turn into a finished project.'"
That's his mind-set now as he works on a new album. He has reunited with drummer Andy Newmark and bassist Kevin McCormick, who were also responsible for two of Lofgren's best solo records: 1983's "Wonderland" and 1991's "Silver Lining." For this electric-guitar project, with some acoustic and piano numbers mixed in, the trio has been recording the basic tracks live in Lofgren's garage to get a spontaneous feel.
"I'm grateful for the reputation I've gotten as a guitar player," he says, "because I fell in love with pop music through the Beatles and Stones, and it was always about the songs."
Lofgren credits a lot of his success to Washington's fertile rock 'n' roll scene of the late '60s. Many towns in the region would sponsor free summertime concerts, which allowed teenage bands to hone their skills in front of hundreds of people.
"It was a magical time," he recalls. "There was no video and no internet, so there was an immediacy about music, because you had to go out and hear it live. ... Looking back, I feel that culture in D.C. led to an extraordinary amount of very good bands."
Lofgren's latest release, "UK 2015 Face the Music Tour," is a selection of live recordings that feature him on electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards as well as classical harp. He was joined by Greg Varlotta on vocal harmonies, guitar, keyboard, trumpet and even tap-dance shoes.