There are nights you walk into a show full of anticipation and positive vibes. It may just be that it’s a Friday night. More often it’s an artist or an insight that promises something special. Nils Lofgren opening his tour of the brand new album Blue With Lou is that kind of night. Particularly after the man was gracious enough to spend time at the beginning of the month talking with TCM about the making of the album and some of the highlights of a remarkable career on the road as rock royalty.
Rather than rehashing much of that information, for a deeper dive on Blue With Lou you can get it in his own words HERE.
Somewhere in the rock and roll jungle there is this sweet spot. A spot where musicians who have stood the test of time, who have been to the mountain and back, reside. Artists who put the joy of creation in front of ego. Artists who continue to explore, create and never settle for past victories. Artists with whom fans can truly relate because they’ve never become a caricature of a rock star because they truly are rock stars. They are rare and special. They stake a claim to authenticity. Authenticity is where the soul of rock music resides.
Nils Lofgren’s show Friday night at The Dakota was about as pure and unadulterated, authentic American rock and roll as you can get. When you factor in things like opening night, brilliant music co-written with Lou Reed that had never seen the light of day, a band of musicians who genuinely like each other, an intimate venue…you get a show that you want to talk about for a long time. This one is going to be easy to remember.
The Dakota is a sneaky good rock venue. When they book this kind of act, it’s not going to be an up and comer. It’s not going to be really loud or banging. (Which is not to say I don’t really like loud and banging!). It’s going to be a musician’s musician; somebody who occupies that sweet spot. Lofgren fits in perfectly with the likes of Dave Alvin, Nick Lowe, Alejandro Escovedo or Willie Nile, who find their way to the venue. Superb songwriters and performers who have written timeless songs and worked with the best of the best. With Lofgren, maybe you’ve seen him on the big stage with The E Street Band or Crazy Horse. Seeing him in the intimate confines of The Dakota is one of those rare opportunities. The place sold out quickly. Long before the album was released. Fans were locked and loaded when he walked on stage with his band.
They immediately set the tone with Attitude City from the new album. That tune is so full of New York City swagger; a perfect meeting of Lofgren’s musical genius and Reed’s cutting cynical wit. I have to admit that I’ve been wearing out the grooves from this one since my very first listen. No doubt, it’s my favorite single of 2019, to date. If you give it a listen and it grabs you, the entire album cruises down the same highway. It absolutely grabbed tonight’s audience; he then held patrons in the palm of his hand for the next two hours.
One of the joys of seeing somebody like Lofgren live is the bewildering depth of his catalog. He presented work which not only flowed together seamlessly but provided a travelogue of his remarkable career. From songs penned as a 17 year old in his first band, Grin, to selections from his solo albums Wonderland, Silver Lining, Nils and Every Breath. Blue With Lou, however was tonight’s star attraction.
The band seemed a perfect fit. More family than business associates. In fact, his brother Tommy was at his side adding guitar, keys and vocals. Album producer, Kevin McCormick sat quietly on a stool with his bass and framed Lofgren’s stellar guitar work beautifully. Springsteen’s E Street backing vocalist Cindy Mizelle could well have been one of the stars from the Academy Award winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. But perhaps drummer Andy Newmark, a long time collaborator on the above mentioned albums, was Nils’ favorite. It was a delight watching the interplay between the two. Here were two artists simply dropping into a groove and digging what the other was doing.
Like Lofgren himself, none of them ever got in the way of the music. There were never any “hey, look at me!” moments. They simply contributed to the whole and produced a sound that seemed bigger than what my eyes were telling me. But that’s the thing about this band and this artist. Rock and roll undoubtedly, swagger and emotion in spades. Yet never over the top. Proof that you can deliver the goods without being bombastic or inorganic. Kind of like The Stones. Too cool to work up too much of a sweat.
There were a pair of brilliant covers. Proof again of putting the music first. If somebody has written a song you love, pay homage and do it. Midway through the set, Lofgren slid over to the piano, where he showcased a remarkable skill set. 10 years of childhood accordion lessons will do that for you. He gave us the Carole King/Gerry Goffin 1966 classic Goin’ Back. He introduced it by saying there was a time when it was cool to be kind. He began the two song encore with the Springsteen penned, Patti Smith ignited Because The Night. It was a dark and brooding take that turned a slow burn into a conflagration. It was, in his words, brimming with “Ominousity”.
I literally loved every single song the band served up. That’s remarkable for any artist, anywhere or anytime. Talking with patrons afterwards, I was not alone in that sentiment. There was a woman seated near me who kept repeating over and over again to her dinner companion: “I love this! He’s so good!” Under normal circumstances, I’d have been tempted to turn and spit: “Enough already! I heard you the first twelve times!” But in this case, I was in total agreement.
Usually, I can look back at a show and pick my favorite moments. The songs that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Tonight I couldn’t do that. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Lofgren’s self professed favorite Too Blue To Play is one of the most heartfelt, redemptive ballads that’s come down the pipe in eons. It seemed the perfect complement to No Mercy, a song about a boxer agonizing over the damage he is doing to his opponent as he pursues the belt. It seems a full circle, from the wide eyed innocence and optimism of songs he recorded with Grin, to the jaded, questioning emptiness of a boxer in his prime to the realization of later age that you can find love and sanctuary in the little things. Even after you’ve resigned yourself to being Too Blue To Play.
Nils Lofgren hit the sweet spot. I’m sad he didn’t spend two nights with us. I would have dragged all my friends out to see him and basked in the glow of rock and roll messiah. I found myself chatting with a new friend post show; we seriously considered following him down to Milwaukee tomorrow night. Five and half hours seems a small price to pay.
Instead, this one will go on the short list for Best Of come the end of the year. I like my rock and roll unpretentious and authentic. This was as good as it gets.