Nils Lofgren: 'I Don't Know If Americans Can Handle a Three-and-a-Half Hour Show"

E Street Band guitarist also says he's adamantly opposed to doing shows without Steve Van Zandt

Nils Lofgren
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Nils Lofgren
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The day before Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney had the plug pulled on them at London's Hyde Park, E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren called into Rolling Stone to give an update on the tour. "[Bruce] isn't constrained by curfew fines or set times and lengths," Lofgren said. "He takes the energy of the crowd and makes a unique and special show that will never happen again." It's definitely unlikely the plug will ever get pulled during a historic Springsteen and McCartney Beatles jam again. 

Lofren also spoke about the nearly four-hour long shows in Europe, why he thinks America won't get shows that long, dealing with setlist changes on the fly and why he can't imagine doing shows without fellow guitarist Steve Van Zandt. Lofgren also likes to give very long, thoughtful answers to questions. In fact, he spoke uninterrupted for 10 minutes and 14 seconds after my first question. 

How does it feel to walk offstage after playing a show for three hours and 48 minutes?
Basically, this is something that has not changed since I joined the band 28 years ago.
At the end of every show, I remain exhausted and exhilarated. I'm completely tired and wired … wound up like a top and exhausted. Appropriately. We're covering a lot of emotional territory. One of the things I kind of love about Bruce is that he wants you to feel the deep kind of songs that might bring a tear to your eye and really make you feel some uncomfortable things, but are important things not to dodge. 

At the same time, it's just as valuable and critical that you have the foolishness and silliness and the hilarity of rock & roll in the same evening. It's a very complex range of songs, and one type without the other would not be a good night. Certainly if you're an artist that only writes tragic songs or dark songs – or only happy songs and silly things – well then that's your show, I guess. But someone who does the whole scope, that's a very smart, correct, appropriate use of a great body of work.

I think accidentally, without really meaning to, we really hit on all those existing territories and we added a new record in. Also, this is the first time, I think in the history of the band, with or without me, that we've walked into a rehearsal with three-and-a-half albums of music that have never been put in a show, factoring in Wrecking Ball and the material from The Promise

Just accidentally, all of a sudden, shows went from a little under three hours and next thing you know we're doing three-and-a-half, three-40, three-50. And it's exhausting and exhilarating. But I look at Bruce, he's doing the heavy lifting. He's out there on five podiums in the stadiums, getting out there and letting people grab him, paw him, scratch his arms, rip his wristbands off, whatever, play tug of war with him. 

The other night we were in Vienna doing "Darlington County." I sing a bit with him. I go running out to a podium to find him and he's running by me back to the center. So I got to turn back around and chase him. Then he grabs me in a headlock and pulls me out to sing with him. Next thing I know, the crowd grabs my right arm … I fell over a monitor in New Orleans a month ago and tore my rotator cuff. It's healing, but it's kind of weak. And all of a sudden, I realize, "Oh my god, they're not letting go of my arm." And they're not trying to hurt me, but he's going through that all night long. 

By the time I got my arm free, I kind of did some damage to the healing there. So I'm a little sore today. Got icepacks and all that stuff. But it's all part of what we're doing. The contact he insists on offering the audience is critical to the show. Doesn't matter if it was four hours. Look, if we play two hours or four hours and Bruce just stayed onstage, then it wouldn't be the right show. Part of communicating all that … the depth of elation, jubilation, hope, joy, sadness, despair, darkness and putting it all together is that access to him, not just through the songs, but physically. 

We rehearsed for a very long time for this tour, about two-and-a-half months. Once we got to a point where we actually had a great show, it was extraordinary. It really felt like we had 10 shows under our belt before night one. I don't know if I've ever felt that strong of a start, certainly since I've been in the band. 

We just did Rock in Rio in Portugal. It was a festival. We all knew that there were a lot of people there that were there to see 20, 30 other bands through the course of a weekend that weren't Bruce fans specifically. A lot of people who'd never heard him. A lot of people who'd never seen him. And you could feel that. The crowd was like, "Hey, why you playing ‘Thunder Road' after two hours? You got a guy on the piano and a folk singer all of a sudden. What are you doing?" A large majority of this crowd did not have that connection that most of our audiences have. And so Bruce had to dig a lot deeper. And just drag out all the tools to make them embrace him and us. And he did. It was a lot of work. I think we played about two-and-a-half hours. Man, it felt like five hours.

Then, a week later, I played a show in Milan that honestly, I felt much less tired walking offstage than I did at Rock in Rio. And somebody said, "You just played three hours and 50 minutes." I was like, "No we didn't." But there was just this wave of energy and I lost track of time.

I think everyone has been very impressed by Jake Clemons. He had a tough job, but he's really killing it.
He's done an extraordinary job. He's very young, and he's also part of a great horn section. He's also part of the Clemons legacy. I believe he's even playing one of his uncle's saxophones that Clarence used onstage for all those great solos.

Bruce is a master storyteller, but he can't tell the same story because we lost Clarence. There's no Clarence II. So to be able to tell the story with Clarence's nephew, who we knew real well before we lost Clarence … I used to see Jake all the time. He was a fine, young musician finding his way, always very passionate and enthusiastic. Now we have a lot of new blood in the band, Jake included, and it's a great way to keep telling the story.

I was talking to Steve the other day, and he told me he may have to miss some future shows to film his TV show. There's a good chance it won't even happen, but hypothetically speaking, how would that change the show?

Well, let's just keep it on a hypothetical level.

Sure.

I don't buy it. [Laughs] I don't buy it. Look man, you gotta understand, I'm still the new kid on the block. I love my bandmates. God bless them. When I was going on a solo tour in 1989 or 1990, Max [Weinberg] said he'd play drums for me. I was like, "Max, you don't wanna do this man. I'm playing these little funky, smoky clubs. We're staying in these funky bed and breakfasts all over Europe. You're dragging your suitcase up three flights of stairs at these places that were built 400 years ago. He said, "No. I really want to play."

He was nervous about it, but we went on the road for five weeks and Max just killed it. I jam a lot in my bands, and it was a chance for Max to really kind of let loose and take more liberties as a drummer. He rose to the occasion and played his ass off. But it was brutal offstage, especially compared to what the E Street Band experienced by at least the early 1980s. 

A few years ago someone said, "Oh, there's 11 or 12 shows that Max is gonna miss and send his son as a sub. We need you Garry and Charlie to set up a couple of amps to start rehearsing him." I was like, "WHAT?!" I was shocked, but Bruce said, "I wanna make this work." It was a very political thing with Conan and NBC giving Max a pass. But as as bandmember, this to me was like, "Hey man, this is big time. You don't friggin' send subs to this gig." But that's the beauty of not being a bandleader, which I'm used to being. My bandleader said to me, "Hey, I want to make this work. Help me make it work." So, it's simple. We make the best of it.

But Jay Weinberg was nothing short of extraordinary. Nevertheless, I played it a little safer and a little more contained. It was the right thing to do and it worked great. As soon as Max was back, I got to be a little more reckless. And, you know what, if I would have been playing with Jay for the last 28 years, it would have been the same deal. 

I don't care if you hired Kenny Aronoff, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, it doesn't matter. It's the lack of familiarity. You gotta make it work as an ensemble. So, the idea that anybody in this band, including Steve, is gonna take a night off is ludicrous to me and I don't believe it.

He made it seem like it might happen if the schedules clashes.
Yeah. I get it, but you gotta understand that my whole life, I'm the bandleader. This is my 44th year on the road, and for most of it I'm the bandleader. I gotta play psychiatrist for my bandmates, get in the middle of two crew guys about to fight, dealing with club owners and half broken PA equipment … I'm doing all of that. One of the many, many gifts that Bruce has given me by asking me to join his band 28 years ago is that I'm not that guy. I'm not the bandleader, and I embrace it. It allows me to tell you, "That's ridiculous. I'm against it."

But…
Everyday Bruce looks at me in the eyes and says, "We're gonna do this. Let's make it work." My job is to make it work, and I will continue to do that no matter what he says. But to say that someone in the band is not gonna be here, to me, is absurd, insanity. I have the luxury as a bandmate, and not a bandleader, not having to understand why, and just being allowed my opinion as a guy who's extremely passionate and proud of this band to say, "That's a no-no. Don't do it." But, it's not my call.

But all through the 1980s you played E Street Band shows without Steve.
Well, we did 165 shows on the Born in the USA tour to start. And then we did Tunnel of Love and Amnesty.

Yeah, so you could certainly do it if you had to.
No! No! We put a show together without Steve that worked. It was difficult, and there's no Steve Van Zandt II. Just like there's no Clarence II. There's no Roy Bittan II. No Max Weinberg II. So, it worked because we had to do without. Bruce said, "Man, it's a drag that Steve is not gonna be here. This is rough, but I'm gonna make it work because I want to share my music." So I helped him the best I could. Again, there's no Steve Van Zandt II. This tour depends on all 18 of us. Nobody can walk away from this without hurting the show. But that's my take.

Look, if Bruce wakes up one day and say to me, "Everyone's got food poisoning. You and I are gonna do an acoustic duo show for a week till they're well." What I am going to say? I'm going to say, "OK, how much time can we rehearse? Are we gonna wing it?" And then he says, "No, no. We're walking out in an hour without any rehearsal." What am I gonna do? [Laughs] I'm gonna walk out and tell my guy that I need to have my 50 instruments tuned. [Laughs]. I got banjos, baritones, twelve strings, six strings, electric guitars … I've got a whole treasure trove of instruments, so I'd walk out, pray everyone got well soon and hustle back.

Are you looking forward to playing American stadiums next month?
Yeah, I love playing for people. Every audience is free to enjoy as they wish. But I miss home. Thank God, my wife Amy is with me, finally. I've got four dogs at home, lots of extended family and friends. Like I said, 44 years on the road. I'm homesick. Touring in America is cool because you can go home during breaks. Three days off here, you can't go home. Here, I can zip home and sleep with my wife and four dogs, watch too much American TV … But I'm thrilled that after 44 years I still love playing so much, and to arguably play in as great a band as there's ever been in history.

It's been great that you're dragging out songs like "Loose Ends" and "Rendezvous."
The audible are crazy. He had me going mad the other night. He kept showing this sign for "Blowin' In The Wind" over and over again. I said to him, "What key do you do it in?" He said, "We've never done it." Steve said to me, "That ain't gonna happen," but Bruce kept showing me the sign. Finally, I run over to the tech and said, "Look, if there's an electric I'm gonna use the Jazzmaster and the bottle neck. If it's acoustic, I might jump on pedal steel. Have 'em ready." And then he gets up the sign and he goes, "You're thinking of the other guy!" He made a joke out of it. "That's Bob Dylan!" And here's me frantically trying to figure out an audible we've never done. It's all good fun, and great inspired, reckless musical moments that come thanks to the centuries of experience we've got.

I'm guessing the tour is gonna carry on beyond September…
I learned long ago, when when I was 18 with After the Goldrush and we hit the road with Tonight's the Night – even back then, I got used to successful artists like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen changing their minds. So to me, every gig is a good gig with a band. Of course I want more gigs, and I'm ignoring all the rumors until you can buy a ticket. That's what I need to do.

Do you think the four-hour barrier is gonna finally be breached at some point on this tour?
Uhhhh … No. But it wouldn't shock me either. Bruce's intent isn't to play a four-hour show. His intent is to make the best of the night. They sometimes just become extraordinarily long, again, because we have three-and-a-half albums of new music. We play nine of 11 songs from the new album, which is great. 

Honestly, and I don't mean this in a bad way, I don't know if American audiences can take a three-and-a-half hour show. They're exhausted. In Europe there's a rat race too, but they take six-week vacations. They have siestas. They take naps in the afternoon where everything shuts down. In general, people move at a slower pace and a concert is just a concert. In America, everyone is so driven and rat-raced out.

Even my buddies that come, it's their high school reunion, it's their college graduation, it's the bachelor party they never had. Every night, Bruce's shows represent three parties in one night. Every slow song, every guy is rushing for a beer and a pee. In Europe, most of the audience just sits there and listens. But in America they pack so much into the music, and it's exhausting. But who knows? Bruce is gonna do whatever he thinks is right. He's not ever setting out worried about time, or constrained by curfew fines or set times and lengths. He takes the energy of the crowd and makes a unique and special show that will never happen again. It doesn't matter if it's 2:20 or 3:50, he's gonna follow his gut and instincts, which are impeccable. He's one of the great performers of all time. He's challenging himself and us to keep getting better. Three or four times a week, we get a shot at it. It's beautiful. 

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