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Music

Five genius moments from across Nils Lofgren's career

Nils Lofgren is one of those rare types of musicians who double up as both a sideman and a frontman. Although you might not be readily familiar with his solo work, you’ll certainly be acquainted with some of the tracks of others that he’s helped to bring to fruition.

A child prodigy when it came to music, learning a multitude of instruments and styles at a young age with apparent ease, he formed the band Grin whilst a teenager in 1968, and they quickly became one of the hottest prospects on the D.C. circuit. He then met folk singer Neil Young when the Canadian troubadour was performing at Georgetown’s The Cellar Door, and this kicked off a long association that would change his life and it continues to this day. 

Famously, aged just 19, he performed across Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush, and this stood him in good stead for the rest of his career; he would use his album credits to secure Grin a record deal in 1971. The band became a critically acclaimed act releasing a slew of albums in just a few years, and over the rest of the decade, Lofgren established himself as one of the best and most sought-after musicians around.

He joined Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s as part of The E Street Band, helping the New Jersey native to take his craft to a different level entirely. However, this should not overshadow the fact that on his own, Lofgren is also a stellar singer-songwriter, having penned countless masterworks over his long and esteemed career. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis once said of Lofgren’s style: “His musicianship will always overtake any desire to use the bandstand to call attention to himself …”

Speaking to NewsHour Weekend back in 2018, Lofgren discussed his lifelong penchant for elevating the works of others, which exhibits the selfless attitude that has made him so revered: “I don’t need to solo. Honestly, if you said, ‘Hey, [do you wanna] go to a bar and jam all night and play every lead in a blues band, or do you wanna just go play country piano and rhythm guitar with Willie Nelson,’ I’d say, ‘Give me the piano and the rhythm guitar.’” 

Duly, we’ve listed five incredible moments from across Lofgren’s career that confirms him as a genius.

Five genius Nils Lofgren moments:

‘Moon Tears’ – Grin, 1+1 (1972)

There are many great Grin tracks, but ‘Moon Tears’ ranks among the very finest. Taken from 1972’s 1+1, it displays both Lofgren’s songwriting and guitar-playing prowess. The magic is only heightened by the fact that the production is so much fuller than what you’d expect from a band at the time, and that the dynamics are refreshing. 

In addition to this, Lofgren penned one of his most anthemic choruses which he delivers with his trademark growl. His guitar work is also celestial, delivering both a punchy main riff and one hell of a solo, and it’s quite astounding that his work on the six-string on this cut isn’t more well-known, as, on it, he puts the era’s established guitar heroes, such as Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, to shame with this pocket-sized masterclass in using your little finger. 

‘Speakin’ Out’ – Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night (1975)

The sixth album by Neil Young, 1975’s Tonight’s the Night has long been a fan favourite, and rightly so. Featuring a host of timeless tracks, including the title track, one of the highlights is ‘Speakin’ Out’, and much of this can be attributed to the skill of Lofgren.

On the track, he became the first person other than Neil Young to play a guitar solo on a Neil Young album. A languid, bluesy tune, his solo comes in at 3:04, as is cued by Young saying, “All right Nils, all right”. He then pounces in with one of the most beautiful solos ever laid down on a Young record. Only 22 at the time, it’s one of the best indicators of his skill. 

‘Beggars Day’ – Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse (1971)

1971’s Crazy Horse by the eponymous rock band is an overlooked gem. The only album by the band to feature their late guitarist and frontman Danny Whitten and recorded without former bandleader Neil Young, it represents a triumphant group effort, before Whitten would be dismissed by the band for his drug addictions and death the following year. 

Drafting in the teenage prodigy Lofgren proved to be a stroke of genius by the band, and nowhere else is this felt better than on the cosmic ‘Beggars Day’. Featuring a pounding rhythm section, and some swaggering guitars, Lofgren wrote the track, another testament to his genius at such a young age. His customary husky vocal delivery carries the track, and it is genuinely mindblowing to heed that he sounded like that at such a young age. 

‘Tunnel of Love’ – Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987)

‘Tunnel of Love’ is one of the finest songs Bruce Springsteen released in the ’80s. Taken from the 1987 album of the same name, it’s an anthemic piece of stadium rock that utilises all the synthesisers and textures of the era.

Featuring Lofgren on lead guitar, he delivers a masterful solo just after the minute mark, melting our eardrums with his combined use of distortion, delay, modulation, and a whole lot of bends. He then jumps back in with some more soloing towards the end of the song, and it’s a sensory delight.

‘Keith Don’t Go’ – Nils Lofgren (1975)

One of the most candid songs Lofgren has written, ‘Keith Don’t Go’ was written as a letter to his hero, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Released in 1975, Lofgren pleads with Richards not to follow the destructive route he was at the time, as drugs were starting to overshadow his musical skill. 

During this era, musicians were very wary of the adverse effects of addiction, as Lofgren was all-too-aware of following the death of Danny Whitten, so there’s no surprise he penned the track. Undoubtedly his greatest moment on the guitar, it covers every inch of the fretboard, featuring taps, harmonics, and flamenco hues. 

“I’m on Neil’s Tonight’s the Night UK tour,” he told Mojo. “I’m just 22, and in heaven. Every day, I’m meeting musicians, a dozen best friends of Keith, and he becomes a common conversation; how sick he is but what an enormous imprint he continues to make. My song was a giant thank you note saying, ‘You’re a medicine, we need you, why not stick around and take care of yourself.’” 

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