Just as he’s done since he joined the E Street Band in 1984, singer-guitarist Nils Lofgren will be on stage with the band when Bruce Springsteen headlines Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Following the March 6 release of their new album, Wrecking Ball, Springsteen and the E Street Band launched their latest world tour. Dates announced thus far extend to three nights in September at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The group played a few pre-tour shows, one at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, another at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. And there were TV appearances for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’s Springsteen Week.
“But the first real gig of ours is March 18 in Atlanta,” Lofgren said a few months ago from New Jersey, where the band rehearsed. “I got to admit I’m looking forward to where it’s just us, our audience and our building that night, with all our tools, crew and the 8,000 songs we’ve got.”
Lofgren is in his 28th year with the E Street Band and his 44th year as a touring musician. Having gone pro at 17, his résumé includes early ’70s studio work for Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Crazy Horse albums; recording and touring with his own band, Grin; and many solo albums and tours. After another run with Young in 1983, Lofgren joined the E Street Band the following year for Springsteen’s 150-show Born In the U.S.A. tour.
Even though he never abandoned his solo career, Lofgren’s many other projects included tours with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, studio work with Branford Marsalis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Patti Scialfa, an early ’90s stint as musical director for ABC’s The Paula Poundstone Show and much more. Still in the thick of it at 60, he’s thrilled about the new chapter of E Street Band history.
“You’re out here, hopefully, to spread some good will and inspiration,” he said. “If you handle it right and you have the right band, which we do, that’s a powerful thing. Of course, there’s no better band leader or songwriter than Bruce, I don’t think, in history. I’m proud to be here.”
But the new tour opens with some bittersweet notes. It’s the first E Street Band tour without Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons. The band’s saxophonist since 1973, Clemons died last June due to complications from a stroke.
“I stood next to Clarence for 27 years,” Lofgren said. “It’s a big change for me, and we were even deeper friends offstage than on. So I miss him. We all do but, hey, the songs are there, the rest of us are here and, most importantly, our singer-songwriter is here. It’s a great body of music to share with people, and the world really needs that kind of healing, through the music. So I’m proud of Bruce for making the decision with Patti to get back out here and do it.”
Although replacing Clemons is impossible, the Wrecking Ball tour features a five-piece horn section including his sax-playing nephew, Jake Clemons.
So far, Lofgren said in February, the especially ambitious Wrecking Ball show was coming together beautifully. It includes songs from the new Springsteen and the E Street Band album as well as music from 2010’s two-CD set of previously unreleased material, The Promise: The Lost Sessions from Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
“Our goal is to be hot right out of gate, make every night special but, inevitably, the train picks up steam as you keep rolling,” Lofgren said.
The latter pattern of on-tour growth applies to Lofgren’s non-E Street Band touring, too. In addition to playing about 50 of his own shows last year, he released his latest solo album, Old School. Featuring guest vocalists and friends Paul Rodgers, Lou Gramm and fellow Arizona resident Sam Moore of the ’60s soul duo Sam and Dave, it’s among the best albums of his solo career, Lofgren said. Old School as well as beginner lessons from his online guitar school are available at http://www.nilslofgren.com.
However much work and study a musician does in the practice room, the stage is the ultimate instructor, Lofgren said.
“I can analyze and improve songs for months at home, but when I get in front of a crowd, everything gets better in a way that can’t happen off the road,” he said. “You can’t get that in a rehearsal hall, even with great musicians.”
All of this suggests Springsteen and the E Street Band will be in prime condition when they reach New Orleans.
“There’s an ease along with this real powerful muscularity of knowing how to handle any issue, any problems, and having the confidence of like, ‘Well, it ain’t right now, but we’ll keep plugging away.’ Some things get right in a couple of minutes, some things take a couple of days, some things take a couple of weeks, but it all gets right, and it’s still a big improv night. We never follow the set list.”
Because he wasn’t on stage when Springsteen, then performing with the Seeger Sessions band, played the first post-Hurricane Katrina Jazz Fest in 2006, Lofgren is especially looking forward to being there with the Boss this time out.
“I love New Orleans. I’ve played many a club there over the years and, hey, it’s a historic city, steeped in great music tradition. It’s gonna be an honor to be there and play with a band like this.”
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