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Review: Nils Lofgren, “Face the Music”

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Nils Lofgren - Face the Music Contents

I. See What a Love Can Do

Nils Lofgren was just seventeen years old when Neil Young called upon him to play piano on his third solo album, After the Gold Rush. The guitarist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and onetime child prodigy joined Jack Nitzsche and the men of Crazy Horse – Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina – on an instrument which was largely unfamiliar to him. He added the understated, stark and raw piano parts that Young and producer David Briggs were looking for, and also supplied harmonies and acoustic guitar to the Top 10 album. Young had discovered Lofgren with his band Grin, and Lofgren would parlay his credits with Young into a deal for the band. Though Grin disbanded in 1974 after just four albums, Lofgren’s prolific career hasn’t let up since. Over 20 solo records have followed, as well as guest appearances, soundtrack recordings and various one-offs, not to mention membership in Bruce Springsteen’s legendary E Street Band since 1984. The Detroit native hasn’t yet penned an autobiography, but as a chronicle of the story of his life, chances are one wouldn’t top the massive new box set from Concord Records dedicated to his singular career. Face the Music encompasses 9 CDs and 1 DVD, all in service of an artist whose own music has long taken a supporting role to higher-profile music with the likes of Young and Springsteen. The limited, numbered edition, compiled and annotated by Lofgren, is a quirky yet personal journey with a true musician’s musician.

By the numbers, Face the Music features 169 audio tracks, 40 of which are previously unreleased, and 20 video clips, along with a 132-page softcover book – in other words, a whole lotta Lofgren. It’s far too sprawling to serve as an effective introduction to Lofgren’s art and career, but then, that isn’t the point, is it? For longtime fans who have followed his career, with and without Grin, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, Face the Music is manna. Those fans should carve out the time to explore this set in depth, as it’s not designed for casual listening and is best experienced in chunks, one disc at a time. Following Dave Marsh’s introduction, Lofgren provides comprehensive liner notes – blending autobiography (“I was born in Chicago, on the south side, June 21, 1951,” they begin) with recollections about each and every album represented, plus track-by-track commentary. Testimonials from Lofgren’s famous friends – many of whom are, of course, present on Face the Music – are also included.

Sensibly, the set is organized in chronological fashion beginning with a disc of 21 prime cuts from Grin. (This would be the most comprehensive single-disc Grin compilation available, though there’s one notable omission.) The second CD chronicles the beginning of his solo career and collaborations with producers Briggs, Al Kooper and Andy Newmark from 1975-1977, with the third CD covering 1979-1983 and notable works with co-writers Lou Reed and Dick Wagner, producer Bob Ezrin, and even a guest appearance by Del Shannon. Disc Four commences in 1985, around the time Lofgren began his tenure with E Street, and continues through his two Rykodisc albums from 1991 and 1992; Young, Springsteen, Levon Helm and Ringo Starr all drop by. The next three discs feature the least well-known material, recorded independently of the major labels between 1993 and 2011. Lofgren was completely free to follow his muse, releasing film soundtracks, live albums, and studio efforts including a tribute to Neil Young. Bonnie Bramlett, Willie Nelson, Paul Rodgers, Lou Gramm, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) and the duo of David Crosby and Graham Nash show up along the way. The final two discs are dedicated to completely unreleased music – “songs, demos, obscure tracks left behind from recording sessions, back rooms and basements,” as Lofgren describes it. These odds and ends date as far back as the Grin days and feature oddities like tributes to Yankee Stadium and The Washington Bullets from the longtime sports fan, and a song inspired by Lofgren’s close pal, the author Clive Cussler. As is always the case with anthologies, it’s not inconceivable that a favorite track might be missing, but Face the Music admirably covers all of the bases.

Plug in with us after the jump!

II. All Out

The seeds of Lofgren’s solo career were sown during his early days with his band Grin. In the booklet, Lofgren notes the life-changing music that he discovered early in his teenage years: “rock, the British Invasion, R&B, Motown, soul and blues music through The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.” All of those influences were apparent in Grin’s four albums, much as they would continue to be during Lofgren’s solo years. But there’s a certain youthful vigor that remains unmatched in Lofgren’s career by these recordings featuring Lofgren, bassist Bob Gordon, drummer Bob Berberich and (after the second album) rhythm guitarist (and Nils’ brother) Tom Lofgren. With producer David Briggs at the helm of all four LPs, Grin offered good-time guitar rock, with occasional piano adding an important color. (After the Gold Rush was recorded between Grin’s first two albums, and Young’s Tonight’s the Night between the second and third Grin sets.)

A full seven tracks have been pulled from the first, eponymous Grin album including the ragged, rollicking sing-along “Everybody’s Missing the Sun” (just try to get it out of your head after a listen or two!) or the bluesy rock-and-roll of “See What a Love Can Do,” with harmony vocals from Neil Young, Danny Whitten and Ralph Molina. That trio also appears on “Outlaw,” but Young’s influence on Lofgren’s vocals is in evidence elsewhere, too, as on “Like Rain.”

Lofgren developed his facilities for both story-songs (“Outlaw,” “Rusty Gun,” the pretty “Lost a Number”) and crunchy pop nuggets (the infectious and unabashedly commercial British Invasion throwback “White Lies,” “Love or Else”) over the course of Grin’s four LPs, as well as a penchant for sing-along tracks (“We All Sung Together,” “Everybody’s Missing the Sun”). All of these share youthful freshness and a knack for melody that would serve Lofgren well later in his career. Six Grin tracks hail from 1974’s 1+1 – including the aforementioned “White Lies,” “Lost a Number” and “We All Sung Together,” plus the high-octane “Moon Tears” with its Who-like riff, and the country-rock of “Hi Hello Home” with Graham Nash adding his magic. 1+1’s “Soft Fun” isn’t really soft or fun, but shows Grin stretching its sound with strings and a majestic church pipe organ.

The title track of Grin’s third LP, “All Out,” is pure saloon-style country; it’s one of six tracks from the album here. Only two songs have been culled from Grin’s final album, Gone Crazy: the tough, rocking Danny Whitten tribute “Beggar’s Day” and the soulful “One More Time,” which Lofgren notes featured backing vocals from “three…girls [who] claimed to be the original Vandellas!”

Eagle-eyed Lofgren fans will notice the absence of “Keith Don’t Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin)” on the main portion of the box set. The track was first aired on Lofgren’s post-Grin solo debut and immediately became a favorite in his songbook. A “right away letter…straight to my main inspirer,” the song pled with the Rolling Stone to conquer his demons. “We miss our father Jimi/It’s hard to breathe with that loss/But I still got you, brother/Don’t nail yourself to a cross,” Lofgren implored over a searing track worthy of the Stones themselves. Though the omission of the original studio track here is questionable, few could argue with the power of the version that has been chosen. Face the Music kicks off its two discs of rarities with a previously unissued “Keith Don’t Go” performed by Grin with Neil Young on piano and vocals. Young adds gravitas to the song, and it functions as a companion of sorts to his own chilling rumination on drug abuse, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Grin brings musical muscle to the track, and it may even be stronger than the familiar recording.

The many sides of Grin are in evidence even on the few lost tracks here. The band could whip up tough rock as on “Try” or “Duty,” the latter of which was re-recorded for Nils Lofgren, or captivate with soulful country rock on the piano-driven “Sweet Four Wings” or “Song for Happiness.” (The late Ben Keith contributed his indelible pedal steel to “Happiness.”) The rollicking spirit of “Just to Have You,” the B-side of “White Lies,” was also prevalent in Grin’s small but compelling catalogue. Face the Music leaves no doubt that Grin was the rock-and-roll training ground for the future E Street guitar slinger and unpredictable solo artist.

Nils Lofgren - Face the Music CoverIII. Outlaw

If Grin’s relative lack of commercial success was, in part, due to its ever-shifting sound, Lofgren continued the doggedly idiosyncratic path into his own solo catalogue, many highlights of which are included on Discs 2-7 here. In retrospect, however, the unpredictability of his music and sound makes for an enjoyable journey on Face the Music. The three discs culled from Lofgren’s independent releases, in particular, are packed with new discoveries. The roughly 2-hour DVD is also illuminating, including the perfectly-titled featurette Nils Lofgren: The Art of Adapting.

But for those dedicated fans who are already familiar even with those songs, the rarities here will likely be enough of an enticement. There are a few guest appearances sprinkled throughout, of course. Foreigner’s Lou Gramm lends his powerful, familiar voice to share harmonies on the uplifting, country-flavored “I’ll Arise” and the shimmering “Some Must Dream” while “Awesome Girl” – a light, Lofgren lark – has Rick James (!) joining in on vocals. (In the “Small World” Dept., James played with Neil Young in the Canadian R&B group The Mynah Birds!)

Many of these lost recordings are Intimate, personal tracks like “Heaven’s Rain” written for friend Clive Cussler’s wedding – as well as the goofy “Whatever Happened to Muscatel,” co-written and sung with Cussler when the great author desired to pen “a corny country song. More serious are “When Are You Loved,” a 9/11 reflection, and “Love Is…,” about dealing with illness; both cut close to the bone. “You in My Arms,” a sweet ode to Lofgren’s then-new wife Amy, sounds like a demo, with basic electronic instrumentation, but doesn’t feel out of place on this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collection. On the relaxed “True Love Conquers Legends,” Lofgren plays bottleneck slide, and one could easily hear the mellow yet spare arrangement embellished with a trumpet or flugelhorn.

The pretty ballad “Here for You” and melodic, mid-tempo, shoulda-been-a-hit “Hide My Heart” shows the songwriter’s softer, sentimental side. So does another one of his story songs, “Dalmatian,” which might be the only tune by a classic rocker dedicated to an aging service dog. (Think of it as a modern-day version of “Old Shep.”) Lofgren, the animal lover, wore his heart on his sleeve (“Dalmatian, this fireman loves you”), clearly seizing inspiration from wherever it might emerge. Another tribute, “Mad Mad World,” was inspired by pilot Chuck Yeager, a personal hero of the artist’s. It’s hard not to well up a bit listening to “Miss You, ‘C’,” Lofgren’s farewell to his fallen E Street Bandmate, Clarence Clemons and other departed comrades. He fashioned the track around “Miss You, Ray” from the Old School album.

It’s tough to pigeonhole Lofgren on both the discs of solo album highlights and on these rarities. One minute he’s jamming (the epic, 11-minute “Message”), then he’s on a world music jaunt (“Stay Hungry”), then serving up shiny eighties-style arena rock (“Beauty and the Beast,” which recalls Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now”), Christmas songs (“O Holy Night”), reggae (“You are the Melody”), or catchy country-pop (“I Don’t Stand a Chance”).

Two of the rarest tracks on Face the Music actually predate Grin. “It’s Better to Know You” and “Last Time I Saw You” feature Lofgren with Paul Dowell and the Dolphin, produced by Richard Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Hang On Sloopy”). The latter is succinctly described in the notes by Lofgren as “a ‘60s pop tune” which says it all – and it’s a particularly charming one, in fact. The pretty “Mist and Morning Rain” dates back to Lofgren’s pre-big time teenage days, as well.

IV. The Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet

The only part of Lofgren’s career that isn’t revisited here is his studio work for other artists including, naturally, Young and Springsteen. One wishes that a track from After the Gold Rush here, or The Rising there, might have been a possibility for licensing; in addition, Lofgren has guested on LPs from Ringo Starr, Lou Gramm, Rod Stewart, E Street pals Danny Federici and Patti Scialfa, Branford Marsalis, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and too many others to mention. Concord’s Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective made room for his session work; a similar approach here would have filled in the only gap on this stunning, near-definitive statement on Lofgren’s (thankfully still-thriving) career and legacy. (A select discography in the booklet includes highlights with Young, Springsteen, Scialfa, Marsalis and Gramm; more details are handily available on Lofgren’s website.)

This classy collection is housed in a sturdy, flip-top box. The discs, all remastered by Billy Wolf, are housed in a folder with great images of Lofgren’s concert posters over the years. In a nice touch, each disc is emblazoned with a Lofgren lyric. In addition, every copy of the limited edition box set comes with a postcard that’s been signed and numbered by the artist. As far as swag goes, this piece is undeniably cool. All that’s missing from the lavishly annotated and designed book is recording information as to the rarities; no recording dates are provided to allow listeners to correlate titles to a particular period or album project.

Whether with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen or solo, Nils Lofgren has always followed his own path.  This set is an engrossing tribute to an artist who may not have had Top 40 recognition under his own name, but has remained a consummate musician, sideman, storyteller and songwriter. Face the Music exquisitely tells Nils Lofgren’s own story in his own words and music – a rare treat, indeed.

Face the Music can be ordered from Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K. !

Written by Joe Marchese

August 21, 2014 at 13:32

3 Responses

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  1. This is a comprehensive account of what’s in the box… But what’s your opinion on the music, qualitywise?… Is it worth the purchase? I’m not really acquainted with his solo work, not sure if all of this is really worth, seem a bit on the overkill side to me…

    Andrea

    August 25, 2014 at 13:55

    • One’s mileage will. of course, vary…but I do believe that “Face the Music” impressively illustrates the career of the man I described as a “consummate musician, sideman, storyteller and songwriter.” I made the choice with this review to go in-depth on the box set’s “new” material (the previously unreleased songs) and some of its hardest-to-find (the Grin years, as all four of the band’s albums are OOP and fetch top dollar). If Nils’ style as described pertaining to that material sounds appealing to you, I’d encourage you to first seek out the single-disc Lofgren comps that are still available, such as “The A&M Years,” “Ultimate Collection” or “Soft Fun, Tough Tears.” There’s even a Grin sampler via “Very Best of Grin.” If you then like what you hear, trust me – “Face the Music” is an exquisite overview of the career of this “musician’s musician.” Lofgren fans won’t be disappointed. Nils’ songs have often been too quirky and personal for the Top 40, but are very worthwhile listens. But if the 20 or so tracks on each of those aforementioned comps are enough Lofgren for you, there’s no shame in that, either.

      Joe Marchese

      August 26, 2014 at 01:12

  2. As of today this set costs £180 on Amazon UK and £90 on Amazon US. Go figure!

    Ken

    August 28, 2014 at 03:09


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