Though he’s had an estimable career as a singer-songwriter, guitarist and member of the ’70s band, Grin, Nils Lofgren may be best known as one of the coolest session players and sidemen of the rock era.
At age 18, Lofgren joined Neil Young’s band, and played piano, guitar and sang on Young’s seminal 1970 album “After The Gold Rush.” Later, Lofgren played guitar and piano on Young’s towering 1975 album, “Tonight’s the Night.” And earlier this year, he toured and recorded with Young again.
As a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1984, Lofgren was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, and has continued to tour with Springsteen.
But Lofgren’s latest project, “Blue With Lou” (Cattle Track Road Records), is something a little more unlikely. Released in late April, the album features a dozen songs inspired by or written in collaboration with the late, great Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013.
Right now, Lofgren is on tour with his own band for the first time in a long time. He’s scheduled to stop in Atlanta for two nights at City Winery, May 26-27, playing songs from “Blue With Lou, and a back catalog from some 50 years as a musician.
A couple of weeks ago, Lofgren took a phone call from his ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the basic tracks for “Blue With Lou” were recorded live in his home studio with two longtime collaborators, drummer Andy Newmark and bass player Kevin McCormick.
“I’m looking forward to being back in Atlanta,” Lofren said. “I have such fond memories of playing Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom back in the ’70s, and walking over to the Fox, which was in danger of being torn down at the time. I just always had a great time in Atlanta, with great crowds, so I’m glad we got two nights there to settle in this time.”
Asked to explain the somewhat convoluted history of “Blue With Lou,” Lofgren jumped right in.
“The short story is, Lou and I wrote 13 songs together,” he said. “Immediately, we got six out. Three for him. Three for me. I put out two, subsequently, getting us to eight. And then, the other five got left behind somehow. I was hoping he might call, again, and we might revisit them. But then, tragically, when we lost Lou, I knew it was my job not to let them go unheard.
“The first songs we released go back to 1979, with three on Lou’s album “The Bells” and three on my “Nils” album. I hadn’t done much co-writing. But when (producer) Bob Ezrin suggested I work with Lou Reed, I just thought, ‘Well Lou’s amazing, but it sounds unlikely to me.’ The next thing I know, though, we’re visiting Lou at his studio, and then we’re hanging out at his apartment, watching football. It was a magical chapter, where we both got inspired.”
Before “Blue With Lou,” Lofgren hadn’t released a solo studio album in eight years. So why this one? And why now?
“About two years ago, at the end of ‘The River’ tour with Bruce and E Street, I felt like it was time for me to really get serious and start writing more earnestly,” Lofgren said. “I was kind of in a funk. But I felt like if I started with the five songs Lou and I wrote that no one had ever heard, that would be a good inspiration to kick me back into the writing mode. And it did. From there, I kept working on our co-writes and a lot ideas of my own, until I had 20 songs.”
Most likely because it was mostly recorded live, “Blue With Lou” often has a funky, jaunty quality that recalls Reed’s signature swagger.
The strutting opening track, “Attitude City” feels tough and timely. The six minute-plus title track is a bluesy, slide guitar centerpiece that conjures Lou, while “Dear Heartbreaker” pays tribute to another fallen rock hero, Tom Petty. And Lofgren’s reggae-tinged remake of Reed’s “City Lights,” a co-write from “The Bells,” is sweet, and topical, too, with a stirring sax part from Branford Marsalis.
“Lou kept my chorus and wrote ‘City Lights’ about Charlie Chaplin, and I thought that was so brilliant,” Lofgren said. “It’s kind of a metaphor, sadly, for what’s going on now in our country. Here’s a guy in the Great Depression, who comes to our country, gets everyone laughing and hopeful, and gives them some joy through his humor, and then we throw him out and banish him. It’s the madness of people in power.”
As for what to expect from Lofgren and his band on this tour, in addition to the “Blue With Lou” rhythm section of Newmark and McCormick, Lofgren’s younger brother and Grin cohort, Tommy, is on keyboards, and Cindy Mizelle, a veteran of the E Street Band who sang on “Blue With Lou,” will deliver the soulful harmonies.
“I’ve got a great band, and an album I’m really proud of,” Lofgren said. “We’re going to do a lot of jamming, and improv. We keep it loose and fun, a little bit reckless, and the main goal is to have it be an inspired night of rock with a band of oldies but goodies who really know how to play and dig deep. I’m really excited to be playing with Tommy, again. And it turns out, after 50 years, I’ve got some good stories, too.”
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