Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren celebrated in solo box set

Nils Lofgren , famed for playing in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and with Neil Young, has a box set, "Face the Music," a retrospective of his work. From Nils Lofgren
Nils Lofgren , famed for playing in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and with Neil Young, has a box set, "Face the Music," a retrospective of his work. From Nils Lofgren
Posted: August 13, 2014

 It's been quite a year for Nils Lofgren. In April the guitar virtuoso was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. And now comes a voluminous box set that celebrates his own work.

Face the Music (Fantasy ***1/2) is a 10-disc career retrospective - nine CDs of music and one DVD - that presents the cream of Lofgren's output over nearly five decades, starting with his acclaimed but poor-selling band Grin.

"Most of this music has been out of print, much to my disappointment," the 63-year-old Lofgren says from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "So to have it all put together in a best-of-46-years-or-so of work is really exciting. It took about 18 months of work, but I'm just thrilled that it's here."

Face the Music offers a bountiful reminder of Lofgren's talents as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, and could come as a revelation to those who know the rocker just as the diminutive ax-slinger for the Boss, or through his previous association with Neil Young.

"I've never been more grateful," Lofgren says. "When I set out to be a professional musician, I certainly wouldn't have been this greedy to think, almost five decades later, I'd have a body of work like this, pretty good health, be in one of the best bands of all time . . . and have a great wife and home. I couldn't imagine having a run this great and long."

For more than two decades, Lofgren has been putting out his albums on his own label. So when Fantasy approached him with the idea of the box set, he was surprised and gratified: "To have a record company that wants to champion a retrospective like this and do it right was really beautiful."

The set showcases Lofgren's range, from the funky blues-rock of Grin's "Slippery Fingers" to the pop tunefulness of such solo cuts as "Back It Up" and "Wonderland," and live solo acoustic numbers. The last two CDs contain previously unreleased material, including gems like the autobiographical "Face the Music," a version of "Keith Don't Go" with Young on piano and background vocals, and "Miss You 'C,' " about E Street sax man Clarence Clemons and others who are gone. Lofgren himself wrote the photo-packed, 136-page booklet, telling his story through the music.

He's hoping that listeners will hear "innocence and honesty and an intensity that's born in hope and positivity to address this rocky road that is life through music."

Long a widely respected musician's musician, Lofgren was 18 when he played on Young's After the Gold Rush. He later accompanied Young on Tonight's the Night and Trans and toured with him. It was through Young that he met the late producer and engineer David Briggs, who would produce Grin's four albums and become a "massive influence" on the musician.

To Lofgren, Young and Springsteen have a lot in common as bandleaders.

"If they're going to have you around and working in their bands, they really are counting on you to contribute," Lofgren says. "You're trusted enough that if you go off and come up with something that you're inspired to hear, it's going to fit. The main requirement is a love and understanding of the music, way past any virtuosity. . . .

"Sometimes, like on Tonight's the Night, Neil may be seeking ragged edges, whereas with Bruce the form might be a little more put together. But he still cuts the rehearsal off before it gets too precise, and leaves a gray area for ragged edges, knowing he'll [get] emotional contributions from musicians that understand the music."

Once an avid street basketball player who also did backflips with his guitar on stage, Lofgren had both his hips replaced in 2008, and he says he's now nursing two torn rotator cuffs. But for all that, and having to focus on his past for the box set, Lofgren is still eager to keep moving forward and finding new inspiration. In other words, to borrow the title of a song from his first solo album, "The Sun Hasn't Set on This Boy Yet."

"The more I learn, the less I know," he says. "I'd never learn everything I want to know if I had five lifetimes in music."

When Steve Van Zandt, another guitarist, rejoined the E Street Band in 1999, Lofgren set out to make himself more versatile, learning lap and pedal steel, bottleneck guitar, and six-string banjo (he also plays piano and accordion). Face the Music has a song, "Dream Big," that features him playing the harp, which his wife, Amy, had given him as a Christmas present. The remarkable video for the song on the DVD shows him playing the harp and then the guitar while tap dancing - a skill he picked up as therapy after his hip surgery.

"I realize what a rare opportunity it is," Lofgren says, explaining why he feels a new urgency to make the most of every performance. "I'm still getting to go out and sing and play, and I feel like I'm getting a little better at it."


ncristiano@phillynews.com

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