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Nils Lofgren reflects on Springsteen, 'The River' and old friends

Nov. 19, 1999.

We’re seven songs into Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s “Reunion Tour” performance in what was then Marine Midland Arena. The band had arrived loaded for bear, and burned through a quick succession of intense 1960s-soaked garage rock tunes like “The Ties That Bind,” “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Then the lights went down, and a folk-based drone announced the commencement of “Youngstown,” Springsteen’s dark examination of an unemployed steel worker’s unravelling psyche, and by extension, a commentary on the widening gap between the working and the ruling class. This is a song that, Springsteen knows, should resonate with the Buffalo audience, and he’s reserved a spot in it for a lengthy, epic, at turns sorrowful and rage-infused solo from guitarist Nils Lofgren.

On this night, Lofgren’s fiery, virtuosic, but always soulful playing on “Youngstown” told the story with as much clarity as Springsteen’s lyric. When Springsteen and Lofgren return to the same building, now called the First Niagara Center, on Feb. 25, it’s quite possible that this solo from 17 years ago will still be echoing through the rafters.

For 32 years, Lofgren has been standing to the right of Springsteen on stages the world over. Though his role is a supportive one, the fact that Lofgren is a fully tenured songwriter, singer and musician who has been touring and performing since he was a teenager fronting the rough-and-tumble garage band Grin, lends both authority and gravitas to his presence in the E Street Band.

Throughout a career that has included stints with Neil Young (he was a member of Crazy Horse in 1971, and made vital contributions to the albums “After the Gold Rush” and “Tonight’s the Night”) and some 25 releases as a solo artist, including the new “UK Tour” live album and the recent retrospective box set “Face the Music,” Lofgren has proven to be capable of balancing instrumental genius and incisive songwriting.

But it’s as a member of the E Street Band that Lofgren has, rightly or wrongly, been afforded an inroad to the popular consciousness. His solo work offers the most abundant representations of his creative genius, but the E Street Band has been a gravitational center in his working life.

“When Bruce calls, I pack my things and go,” Lofgren said by phone from his hotel room in New York City.

Springsteen’s most recent call to Lofgren pitched a tour to commemorate the release of the massive box set “The Ties that Bind: The River Collection,” a document of the era in Springsteen & the E Street’s history that produced the 1980 double-album “The River,” an album many fans hold to be their finest. It was a spur of the moment decision. Springsteen had the itch to play this music live, to see where the characters in the songs might have gone with their lives in the 35 years since we had last heard from them, and to find out what this music might mean to the band and audience in the present tense.

Springsteen stripped the E Street Band down, leaving aside the horn section and backing vocalists in favor of a tightly wound, gritty, guitar-based sound redolent of the original “River.”

“I miss all of the players from the last tour as people, because they are all wonderful people and part of the family,” Lofgren said. “But this stripped-down version of the band allows the vocals to really come to the fore, especially the interplay between Bruce and Steve (Van Zandt, E Street guitarist and vocalist), which has just been incredible on the tour so far. The ‘River’ material is emotional, beautiful stuff, and it runs the gamut from dark ballads like ‘Point Blank’ to rock ’n’ roll party tunes. I think this smaller version of the band really captures the vibe of the original album, and updates it a little bit.”

“The River” is only half the story on this current E Street jaunt, however. The shows so far have been running in excess of three hours, and have included a second set of non-“River” tunes culled from Springsteen’s career.

“The second set is all off the cuff, in a way,” Lofgren said. “On the last tour, we played more than 200 different songs, and often, we’d be brushing up on the tunes backstage before the show, or during soundcheck, because you never know what Bruce might pull out of the hat. That keeps us on our toes.”

Lofgren said the interband dynamic in E Street-land is better than ever, “incredibly healthy, and all about camaraderie, fun, humor.”

The ties binding Lofgren to E Street sound an awful lot like the virtues that hold a family together.

“That’s really what it is, it’s true. I have great respect and admiration for everyone in this band. It’s an honor to play with them, and of course, it’s an honor to play Bruce’s music. I was a fan before I was even in the band.”

One of the many soul-stirring moments documented on “Face the Music UK Tour” release finds Lofgren paying tribute to departed members of that family – E Street Sax legend Clarence Clemons, organist Danny Federici and Springsteen’s personal assistant Terry McGovern, all of whom die over the past decade. “Miss You, C” namechecks all of them, though its primary focus is on Clemons, with whom Lofgren was particularly close.

“That song is all about healing, about realizing that losses bring grief, but if we keep our hearts and our eyes open, we don’t have to dwell in that grief forever,” Lofgren said.

“When Clarence died, it was right around my 60th birthday, but I didn’t want to celebrate, I just wanted to grieve. My wife Amy insisted that we all go out to have a party for my birthday, and it turned into this 5½-hour healing session, full of laughter, and tears, and love. It made me realize that we honor those we’ve lost by continuing to live, to love, and to embrace life.”


What: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25

Where: First Niagara Center

Tickets: Sold out


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