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'Ball' of fire
Guitarist Nils Lofgren talks about the burning passion that still fuels Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

For 28 years now, Nils Lofgren has been adding his distinctive, subtly virtuosic musicianship to the ensemble sound of the E Street Band.

Already a revered guitarist when he was hired by Bruce Springsteen for the 1984 "Born in the USA" tour -- he had played with Neil Young, fronted his own band, Grin, and released a string of vibrant, inventive solo albums -- Lofgren was on board for Springsteen's commercial peak, and he remained when the E Street Band returned from its hiatus for the 1999 tour that prefaced the release of three of Springsteen's most ambitious and meaningful albums, "The Rising," "Magic" and "Working on a Dream."

The tours behind those records qualified as a late-career renaissance for Springsteen and the band, and Lofgren -- by this point, a multi-instrumentalist adept at "playing whatever the music called for at any given moment" -- was a prime mover in this burst of creative activity.

Touring with Springsteen and the E Street Band in support of the "Wrecking Ball" album -- a jaunt that includes a sold-out stop at 7:30 tonight in the First Niagara Center -- Lofgren finds himself once again a significant factor in a sociopolitical-musical juggernaut. "Wrecking Ball" ranks among Springsteen's angriest, most passionate exegeses on the disparity between the promise of the American dream and the economic reality of the majority of Americans. In the early days of the tour, which has received nearly unanimous rave reviews since commencing March 18 in Atlanta, the expanded 17-piece E Street Band has been breathing even more fire into these already scorching songs.

Earlier this week, Lofgren spoke to me from his hotel room in New York City, regarding his recently released, excellent solo album, "Old School"; his role in the expanded E Street Band; the fire at the heart of the new "Wrecking Ball" album; and how that fire makes its way to the stage each night.

Lofgren also reflected on the significance of the E Street Band's first appearance in Buffalo since Nov. 22, 2009 -- the concert that was the final appearance by the late Clarence Clemons with the band.

>Your new solo record is pervaded by a sense of loss, and it's dedicated to the memory of Clarence Clemons. Despite that fact, the record is fiery, passionate and "in your face." Was it a particularly difficult challenge to balance the reflective nature of the lyrics against the defiant feel of the music itself?

"It actually just happened very naturally. Right after the 'Magic' and 'Working on a Dream' tours, I headed straight into making the record. I wanted to make it feel like a live performance, and I was in good shape after the tours. I decided to have an open-door policy at home while making the record, to leave the door hanging wide, and to urge my family to interrupt me. I didn't want it to feel insular or insulated at all.

"Having turned 60, and noting the loss of people I loved so much, it was inevitable that the record would reflect these realistic themes. Look, I have been incredibly blessed in my life. I never imagined at 17 that I'd be doing this 44 years later, that I'd have an incredible wife, six dogs, a nice home, meaningful work to do. But lots of people my age are suffering. Blessed as I am, I realize that people are struggling, through these terrible economic times, through the inescapable grief and loss that comes with being this age. I wanted to speak for them and to them. The grief can tear you down, can turn to anxiety that never leaves and colors your whole life. The record is about getting up and going on and celebrating what you have left."

>The E Street Band tour seems to be hitting its stride now. The set lists are loosening up, the reviews have been excellent. Tell me how it feels to be in the midst of this incredibly powerful 17-piece band on stage each night. Has the expanded band affected the way you approach your role in the music?

"I approach it exactly as I have for the past 28 years as a member of this band, and particularly since Steve [Van Zandt] rejoined for the 1999 tour -- when it became obvious that we didn't need three or even four guitars on every tune, and it would be wise for me to bring some different instruments and flavors to the music. That might mean pedal steel, dobro, banjo, anything, really.

"I have more than 50 instruments on the road with me. I always look for what's missing in the music, and add my ideas in reaction to that. This is a big band, but really, I'm applying the same approach -- to serve the song. I love this music, and I love these people. I'd play tambourine for Bruce, if that was what he wanted! He's a master who is challenging himself constantly, still. To be a part of that is thrilling."

>The first performance of "41 Shots" on the tour took place in Tampa, Fla., last month, in the midst of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. The performance was simply electric, very moving, very powerful, from Springsteen's vocal delivery, right down to your inspired guitar solo. What was it like, playing that song, to that crowd?

"Sadly, it is an incredibly appropriate song to play. The song deals with our national rage and anger, and it deals with the problem of guns in this country -- things that I feel we are yet to address in a meaningful way, and things that will keep reappearing again and again until we do. So it felt appropriate, but tragically appropriate, to play that song.

"It's so powerful. The trick there is finding a balance between letting the song sweep you away on an emotional level, and keeping on top of your game, musically. That's one of my favorite things about being in this band, actually -- that consistent challenge."

>The way in which you guys are handling the absence of Clarence and Danny [Federici, the band's organist who died in 2008] on the tour is, not surprisingly, very classy and very moving. During that point in the show, what emotions are you going through? Is it a feeling of shared mourning and celebration with the audience, or is it something more personal?

"All of the above, definitely. We lost Clarence on my 60th birthday. It was absolutely devastating. The grief can take you out of the game. You just have to hang on to what's left.

"The way Bruce is handling it is to give us all -- on the stage, because we are all grieving, but also all of you, because we know you're grieving, too -- a chance to mourn together. And his take on this is that we need to decide together that we will carry on, that we will honor the memories of the people we've lost together, and that we will make the decision to go forward, and not to give in to the grief. Bruce is handling this with great dignity. What a way to honor Clarence, and Danny, too -- through the music itself."

>The songs on "Wrecking Ball" are angry, on-point and very difficult to misinterpret. The sets are featuring the album prominently, and there is clearly a theme working its way through the shows. Do you ever feel a disconnect with some of the audience during a song like "Jack of All Trades" or "Death To My Hometown"? Is there the sense that the message is getting through?

"Yes, in a word. But I also look at it this way -- if you buy the ticket, you can take from the show whatever you like. These are very powerful songs. Not everyone takes the whole journey with us, and that is certainly their right. Some nights, some people might just want to celebrate, to have a few beers, and to just plain have a great time. Other nights, maybe they are hurting, and they need to look deeper into the songs, to find what's there that might be healing for them. And then, some nights, people are just plain in too much pain, you know? They can take from what we are giving whatever it is that they feel they need. And we are all comfortable with that."

>And for the people who want to really dig into these new songs?

"We are in real trouble in this country, and on this planet, right now. Bruce is speaking to that, and to the fact that the people we've expected and entrusted to lead us toward some progress in these areas have failed us all greatly. If you saw any of the Republican debates, then you know we cannot look to any of these guys to help us. We are in serious trouble, and they are having debates about contraception? Really? It's sad and embarrassing. So there is anger in the music, definitely. But there is also humor, joy, redemption, hope."

>The last time you played Buffalo, you guys played the entire "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." album. It also turned out to be Clarence's final performance with the band. Does that make returning here more poignant or momentous for you?

[Long pause] "Mmmm. Yeah, now that you reminded me..."

>I'm sorry....

"No no no, don't be, that's all right.

"Look, I miss Clarence every single night and every single day. I stood next to him on stage for 28 years. And off stage, we were even closer. Even off the road, we would talk at least once a week. He was and is a major presence in my life. I loved him deeply. We all did. And we know that a lot of you loved him, too.

"This [Buffalo] show will definitely have some extra meaning, though... Our job is to inspire, to uplift and to celebrate. His spirit is with me. It's with all of us. And it will certainly be in the building on that night."



WHAT: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

WHEN: 7:30 tonight in First Niagara Center

TICKETS: Sold-out