Nils Lofgren is better known as the trampoline-jumping, comically-large-hat-wearing, guitar-wielding member of Bruce Springsteen’s band than he is for the string of critically-acclaimed solo albums that he released, pre-E Street, between 1975 and ‘85.
His status as a buddy of ‘The Boss’ notwithstanding, the fact is that Lofgren has the sort of rockin’ credentials that younger musicians would sell their souls to Old Scratch to put on a resume. A musical prodigy who studied jazz and classical music as a child, Lofgren picked up a guitar at age 15 and dedicated his life to rock ‘n’ roll, forming the acclaimed D.C. area band Grin at age 18. Grin’s popular live shows brought the guitarist to the attention of Neil Young, who brought Lofgren in to play on his classic After the Gold Rush album.
Grin recorded three acclaimed albums circa 1971/72 but scored only a single minor hit with the Lofgren song “White Lies.” In the wake of that band’s break-up, Lofgren toured with Young and contributed to the singer’s Tonight’s the Night album. Lofgren launched his solo career with the 1975 release of his self-titled debut, an album notable for original songs like “Be Good Tonight,” “Back It Up,” and “Keith Don’t Go,” a musical plea to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The following year’s Cry Tough won equal critical acclaim as the debut and experienced similar modest sales, but subsequent releases like 1977’s I Came To Dance, 1979’s Nils, and 1983’s Wonderland would result in declining commercial fortunes, and in 1985 Lofgren accepted Springsteen’s offer to join the E Street Band.
In between Springsteen tours, Lofgren toured with Mrs. Springsteen, Patti Scialfa; as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band; and again with Neil Young. During his lengthy tenure playing behind the Boss, Lofgren largely put his solo career on the back burner, but he still managed to release a handful of albums during the 1990s and 2000s, studio efforts complimented by various compilations and live material from the archives. Lofgren’s last album was 2006’s Sacred Weapon, and now five years later the rock ‘n’ roll lifer returns with his 15th studio album, Old School.
Much like fellow Bruce-buddy Joe Grushecky, Lofgren is a grizzled veteran of life in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches, an elder statesman with a snowball’s chance in hell of scoring that ever-elusive, career-making hit. Also like Joey G., however, Lofgren’s role as cult favorite frees the artist from undue commercial expectations, resulting in as honest and sincere a work as one can expect in these jaded early years of the new millennium. Old School is exactly that, a collection of largely original material that doesn’t stray far from Lofgren’s signature sound and breaks little new ground, but rather wraps the listener in a familiar blanket of classic, guitar-driven rock.
The title track opens Old School, the song’s funky groove and hot git licks barely concealing the singer’s lyrical laments about these darned kids today, Congressional critters, reality TV, and dysfunctional families. While Lofgren sounds like an old man screaming “get off my lawn” at anybody walking down the street, the performance sizzles with a fat rhythmic groove, timely blasts of horns, and a slight vocal contribution from Foreigner’s Lou Gramm. The following “60 Us The New 18” fares slightly better. A mid-tempo rocker with a tempered perspective, Lofgren is self-effacing at times, concerned at others, as he faces coming out the other side of middle age with an edgy, rocking, jumpy new wavish sound that hits the ears like it’s 1981 all over again.
Lofgren finds his usual introspective groove by the time the lovely, acoustic “Miss You Ray” rolls around. A heartfelt tribute to R&B legend Ray Charles, the song is really much more: a fond reminiscence of life and family, delivered in a gentle, quivering voice and accompanied by Lofgren’s elegant fretwork. The charming “Love Stumbles On” veers the closest to Lofgren’s beloved mid-1970s solo work, evoking a sort of musical and lyrical cross between Grin, Grushecky’s Iron City Houserockers, and Springsteen’s early albums. While the lyrics are Dylan oblique, there’s no mistaking Lofgren’s beautiful, plaintive vocals and bittersweet guitarplay.
One of the highlights of Old School is Lofgren’s take on musician and songwriter Bruce McCabe’s hauntingly beautiful “Irish Angel.” A romantic ballad of heartbreak delivered with a slight Celtic lilt, Lofgren’s gruff, forlorn vocals are matched by his delicate piano and Spanish-tinged fretwork. Another master stroke is provided by the muscled, hard-edged soul-rock romp “Ain’t Too Many of Us Left,” Lofgren joined on vocals by Stax Records great Sam Moore. An autobiographical tale that tries to make some sort of sense of aging in a rapidly-changing world, Moore’s soulful backing vox add a wonderful gravitas behind Lofgren’s fierce guitar riffs.
Old School closes with the mid-tempo “Why Me,” another nod to Lofgren’s 1970s work, with maybe a dash of 1980s-era Springsteen thrown in on the lyrical phrasing for good measure. The song asks more questions, perhaps, than it answers, the protagonist staring down his mortality with an almost fatalistic acceptance, humble yet defiant. Lofgren’s guitar screams and howls angrily in the background, lending a sort of Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that good night” spirit to the song, the artist delivering one of the strongest, emotionally-charged performances of his lengthy career.
While Lofgren’s Old School won’t set the charts on fire, it offers plenty to chew on for the guitarist’s long-time fans while providing enough contemporary style and grace to attract some new followers. Lofgren’s voice has dropped somewhat from his high-pitched teens and 20s, weathered into a more soulful instrument, and his guitar playing has never been better, displaying great elegance and grace. An artist definitely ripe for rediscovery, Old School is a vital, engaging work by a rock ‘n’ roll veteran. (Vision Music, released December 6th, 2011)
Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012