Union Chapel, London, 15/1/2015
published: 9 /
Ben Howarth watches E Street Band multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren play a magical masterclass from his extraordinary back catalogue of own material at the Union Chapel in London
As a seventeen year old, Nils Lofgren briefly ran away from home to chase his dream of rock stardom on the streets of New York City. In the process of being thrown out the door by one of the many record labels he visited, he bumped into Sly Stone – who took pity on the naïve youngster and invited him to spend the night cashing in his hotel room.
Lofgren’s sojourn in the city didn’t last long, and he returned to his parents (“I didn’t know the difference between a burning desire to do something and actually being good at it – just like on ‘American Idol’,” he quips) – but he’s never forgotten the kindness of Sly Stone. The sense that Lofgren feels that there is a little more to being a rock star than just enjoying the trappings of fame shines through loud and clear in tonight’s exceptional live set.
Lofgren comes onstage to take his seat at a harp and ends the set with his tap dancing shoes on. But don’t go thinking this show was just about novelty – in between, we are treated to a masterclass in acoustic guitar playing and two hours from one of rock’s most underrated back catalogues.
You will know Lofgren as the man bobbing between as many as fifty different instruments on stage with the E Street Band. And you’ll probably also know that – while still a teenager, though a little after his run in with Sly Stone - he played guitar on Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night’. You may also even know that he co-wrote an album with Lou Reed, and has toured as part of Ringo’s All Starr Band.
But did you know the sublime, sensual ‘Girl in Motion’ – a soulful croon with an epic guitar solo that would perfects the formula the War On Drugs were striving at on their recent album? Tonight Lofgren extends it with an epic, dextrous guitar solo. There is a video from the show on YouTube, and the close-up view confirms what I was thinking when I was watching the show – that he barely seems to be moving his hands while conjuring up remarkable sounds.
On the irrepressible rocker ‘Mud in Your Eye’ Nils takes on the driving guitar lines, while his sideman (the multi-talented Gregg Varlotta) leaps onto a tap dancing mat to provide the song’s drumbeats. As we head into the encores, Nils and Gregg trade taps one after each other. An honest appraisal is that Varlotta is the slightly better mover, but then he hasn’t had to have major surgery to correct the damage to his hips caused by years of onstage somersaults and backflips.
Lofgren has no problem tipping his hat to his illustrious collaborators – there are frequent tales from his time on the road with Springsteen and his reference to his first trip to the UK on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour gets a huge cheer. Indeed, he plays his own version of ‘Because the Night’ as the show draws to a close.
But, with songs like the McCartney-esque ‘The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet’ or the sensitive ballad ‘Man on the Moon’, Lofgren provides something a little more intimate than the typical Springsteen show. His gentle vocals come across a lot better in person than they do on record – he has a knack for making a song sung to an audience of many hundreds sound like it is coming from the corner of a quiet pub.
Lofgren is a regular in the UK (indeed, you are far more likely to see him play if you live in Tunbridge Wells or Basingstoke than you are if you live in the heart of the US), but the Union Chapel was a new venue for him. I got the impression the sold-out crowd contained a few more people than usual here mainly for the Springsteen connection – so that meant that even some of his better known songs didn’t get the usual ripple of recognition. What we lost there, though, was more than made up by the sense of a crowd being won over the longer the set went on.
As we filed out, well over two hours after Lofgren first came onstage with his harp, I overheard several people remark that they’d enjoyed the show much more than they even expected – they’d come to see Springsteen’s guitarist and left having seen a great songwriter. With Lofgren planning to spend the rest of the year working on a new solo album, and with a promise to come back to the UK sooner rather than later, I suspect that tickets for his next tour will be rather harder to come by – word is spreading about quite how magical a Nils Lofgren shown can be.