Nils Lofgren on Springsteen's Audibles, Audience Energy, Set List Criticism, TicketsNow and More

Bruce Springsteen E Street Band, Monday, Verizon Center.

High expectations? Only for anybody who's ever been to a show staged by the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, Earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, history-making, etc.-etc., band.

I caught up with guitar whiz Nils Lofgren, Bethesda's former boy wonder, this afternoon to talk about the tour, whose set lists has been heavy on audience requests -- many of them covers that weren't worked up ahead of time, from "Good Lovin'" (the Rascals) and "96 Tears" (? and the Mysterians) to "Mony Mony," the old Tommy James and the Shondells tune that was added to the set this week.

How's the tour looking and sounding so far from your stage-right perch?
Hey, I love it. We kind of got back into the whole improv thing sooner than I thought. There's always audibles, but we're doing wholesale improv again. Bruce is taking a lot of request signs, going through them and picking songs. Last tour, we were just improvising the whole set the last couple of months. This time, we're playing songs we don't even know how to play, which, I guess, is taking improv to new heights. Everyone's scrambling and having fun with it. It's kind of new territory. But Bruce has discovered we don't even have to know a song to play it. I wouldn't have thought of that myself.

You haven't been stumped at all by some of the covers he's calling out?
Not really. Obviously, I can probably find a song or two that we couldn't play. But in general, if it's any kind of popular song -- British Invasion, Motown, Stax-Volt, the blues -- we can probably do it. We all grew up in the '60s playing in bar bands, when you had to learn how to play the songs in front of people. And jeez, we've probably got 300 to 400 years onstage between us. Obviously, we've done some songs that were pretty hairy; I can't say all 12 of us knew every note the whole song. But enough of us aimed in the right direction to make it work. Bruce is leading us through it; it's working great.

But one of the things he hasn't done is give up on the notion that the show has to build. Which is extraordinarily difficult to do if you're insisting on doing improv. He's doing a lot of work physically, emotionally, mentally to keep us all in the zone, to keep us all surprised -- including himself.

Safe to say, then, that you aren't zoning out onstage and thinking about, I dunno -- a bill you need to pay?
No. You're pretty challenged to say down in the music, which is a fun thing to do. You know, we all have complex lives. I don't think mankind was built to handle to the technology we've developed at all. It's been a bad thing, to be wired in to everyone 24/7, with your computer, BlackBerry, cellphone. I won't have a BlackBerry; I just have a cellphone that doesn't have all the bells and whistles. I'm not cut out for it.

The stage is a place where you can turn your phone off. My family knows where I'll be, and I know they're okay. So for three hours, I don't really have to talk to anybody. I can just zone in to the music and the band. I'm in the moment out there. It's a challenge to know what to play. And, too, a lot of the improvs are Bruce songs, some we haven't played in years. It's fun. I've got 40 years on the road last September of knowing how to react and handle these exact kinds of things. It's fun and challenging for all of us, and I think we're up to it.

It makes for an exciting night. Even if the audience doesn't see a couple of nights in a row and doesn't see the difference, I think they sense that something edgy's going on up there. And Bruce leads it all in good fun. He knows, as a consummate bandleader, that if you're going to improv and do songs you don't even know, you can't expect everyone to catch every note all the time. And that includes himself. Sometimes, I'll come up on a bridge to a song I know, but I don't know the chords. So I'll play a line through the bridge instead of trying to hit chords that I know are going to be wrong. You just use your live instincts to avoid trainwrecks.

(Much more after the jump.)

Is the band capable at this stage of delivering a bad show?
We're all too far down the road and too suited for live work to let that happen. I've been in the band 25 years, and jeez, I don't think there's been a bad show. Certainly there's been quieter audiences, nights where there were technical glitches or the sound was funky. But a bad show? No, I don't think we're capable of that.

How much does the crowd's energy matter? I thought there was a real difference between the two D.C. shows on the Magic tour, with the first show better than the second -- and I thought it might have been because there was less energy flowing from the audience to the stage. Does that matter?
It's a very small degree. If you have a sedate crowd, I've learned over the years that it doesn't mean they're not enjoying it. It just means they don't want to get up and jump around and get exhausted. But they're enjoying it. If it bothers you at all or you're sensitive to it, you just hook into the band. We're very loud up there and all-encompassing; it's easy to just get lost in the music. I take the energy of the audience, but I have no requirements for them, other than to enjoy themselves as they see fit.

Listen, my wife, Amy, is a Jersey girl, and I can't get her to sit down at shows. She's in the pit dancing all night, even when she comes to see us. The singer -- I don't care if it's Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen -- would prefer everyone standing up, going crazy. But when I go to see a show, I like to get a side seat off the floor and pick my spots to stand up and down. But that's me. Everyone's different. That's the price of the ticket. You get to do whatever, within reason.

Now part of what Bruce does is co communal that sometimes the audience is more sensitive and goes, "Oh, man, we weren't as good as we were last night." Yeah, but did you have fun? That's the bottom line. You should come and exercise your right to enjoy the show as you see fit.

Your shows are being picked apart by fans more than ever, what with set-list info widely available online, whether it's via Bruce's site or on Backstreets, where the set-list analysis almost happens in real time. What do you make of the nitpicking?
You've gotta understand that since live music started thousands and thousands of years ago, fans have been off at the corner bar picking the show apart. So now it's on the internet. Big deal. Listen, in the '60s, I used to travel all up and down the East Coast just to see Jimi Hendrix. I loved him. Did I like one show better than the other? Yes. Did I sit around and gossip about it? Probably not. But I don't begrudge the fans their opinion. And I don't travel with a computer, so I don't see that stuff daily. But it wouldn't take anything away from me.

We were joking about it, me and Garry, our bass player, how last tour, people were whining about: "You're doing nine songs from the new album; why don't you do a few more old ones?" Now the whining is: "You're only doing three or four songs from the new album, why don't you do more?"

And you have people going, "Hey, it was our sign for 'Good Lovin',' we're so happy you played it." And other people are like: "The hell with 'Good Lovin',' I would have rather have heard a couple more Bruce classics." And you know what? I'm one of those people sometimes! Hey, it's fun to do covers, it's fun to be a bar band. But what about playing "I'm on Fire"? What about some of those great old Bruce songs? "Because the Night," haven't heard that in a while. But I love every song. If you want to get wound up on it, go for it.

We're playing, what, 27 songs? Thirty? Bruce has 400 great songs, so sure, you're not going to hear some of the songs you want to hear. But Bruce is a great performer -- and since I'm not Bruce, I can brag on him a little bit. He's learned that he needs to stay emotionally attached to every syllable he sings and engaged in the moment and the spirit of the night for it to be the best show it can be. Whatever comes with that is a blessing for all of us and the audience.

You can't please everybody. But I get a review from the audience instantly, and as long as I sense they had a ball at the end of the night, I'm happy. Whatever anyone writes is after the fact. And the beautiful thing is, tonight, I get a chance to do it all over again. And I have no idea what we're going to play.

Maybe somebody will bring a sign to the D.C. show for "We All Sung Together."
(Laughs.) Yeah, and you'll have 20,000 fans pissed off that it's one less Bruce song. I understand; he's got a lot of them. It's a great thing to be a part of. I've actually done a lot of Bruce covers. Not as an album. But in my own shows, I was doing "Because the Night." I've done "Seeds." "If I Should Fall Behind" is a regular song in my acoustic shows. For some charity records, I've done "Man at the Top" acoustically. I did a great electric version of "Wreck on the Highway." You know, there's just so many great Bruce songs we're not going to play every night. The ones we play are going to be great, and we'll stay emotionally down in it.

You'll be playing D.C. after a couple of nights off, which some fans here are really happy about because they're convinced the shows are better when you guys are rested. Do you buy that?
No. We've just done four shows in five days two weeks in a row -- all one-nighters, which is pretty grueling. That's when you get into that place where you don't even know if you played last night, where you are. You just know there's a show. Bruce usually gives you a handful of songs to be ready for, whether you see them or not. Plus, there's the audibles. It's so musically engaging.

Sure, you do get fatigued and tired, but you're in this heightened state of adrenalized energy. Way too many nights when you should be falling over, you've done one of the best shows of your life. Though I think if someone come out and saw 12 or 15 shows in a row, night after night, they might have a different opinion. But last tour, we did 100 shows, and the last two months of improv were some of the best shows we've ever done.

How are the new hips holding up?
Great. I just had my six-month check-up. I'm a little stiff and sore. But basically the pain's gone, I'm walking like a normal person again instead of my Charlie Chaplin waddle of the last 10 years, with bone-on-bone hips. I have a lot of physical therapy ahead of me, to really lock them in, but I'm in so much better shape. I'm just trying to be a good rehab patient, which is critical. Once they're in, it's a life sentence. You either do the rehab, or you're going to be limping and hurting again.

I'm only seven months in, so I've got a lot of learning to do, and a lot of physical therapy. But I researched the surgery for five years, and there's one thing everyone agreed on: New hips do not like impact. Motion's not a bad thing, and I move a lot onstage. But if you love to run and you need it for your spiritual and emotional peace, your new hips might fall apart in five years because of the impact. They could last 20 if you don't abuse them with impact. It's a personal life choice. And honestly, it was such a freaky, ominous thing to go through that I want to hang onto them. So I'm not going to be jumping off a drum riser. And apparently, the trampoline's gonna have to stay in the closet. But I'm moving better than I have in a decade. I'm on the mend and excited to be on this refreshing musical adventure, still immersed in the band and the music. I've been in the band for 25 years this month.

Last year, you told me that when you joined the E Street Band, it took you about 20 shows to really get into the groove. How's that new drummer, Jay Weinberg, coming along?
Well, last night was Jay's first full show. He did great. It's pretty amazing how he's internalized all the nuances of his dad's playing. No one can be Max Weinberg, but Jay's doing an incredible job, filling that role for what we need to do as a band. It's a tricky thing. I remember when I joined the band 25 years ago and I only had four weeks before opening night. That wasn't near enough time to feel comfortable, even though I was comfortable with the people. The goal is to figure out how to do what Bruce and Steve were doing on the guitar and vocals and start there so that the band isn't missing too much.

As the shows work, you instinctively see places where you can add your own thing without taking away what was already there. That's the essence of a great band. Jay's been doing a great job at that, and certainly he has a fabulous mentor in his dad who's been in the band since '74 but actually started playing in the late '60s.

We've all brought 40 years-plus of experience to the table and know how to be a great band in front of an audience. And I think we're in a great period of productivity as a band onstage. Now offstage, it's like a MASH unit, with heating pads, ice pads, stretching, trainers, all that stuff. But hey, I'll be 58 soon, and I'm the youngest guy in the band. And I have two new hips.

You been talking to the Big Man about the new body parts?
Clarence has had three hips in in the last 25 years. One of the replacements got replaced. And he's rehabbing two new knees. I've been talking to him about it on and off for about a decade, knowing that it was unfortunately coming down the road for me. We actually were in the same hospital, Hospital for Special Surgery, here in New York City. When I was up to a longer walk, four or five days after the surgery -- obviously with help and canes -- my therapist took me down to see Clarence. We're hanging tough. It can be a challenge, but when you get out there and realize the power of the band, the strength of the songs and the history, it's easy to get excited.

There's some controversy surrounding the show here, through not fault of your -- own other than that too many people want to see the band. But TicketsNow, the Ticketmaster-owned reseller, sold some tickets to the show that it didn't have. Do you follow that sort of news at all?
Not too much. In the beginning, it was brought to my attention that Ticketmaster was doing some illegal scalping with TicketsNow. I read what Bruce commented about it, how wrong it was, and I'm obviously in total agreement. Listen, that's why the whole planet's getting run down, because of greed and freedom gone unchecked. Sadly, there's people that aren't burdened with a conscience. Greed is king. We don't police those people well enough as a society, and that obviously has to change or things are just going to keep getting worse. This is just a microcosm of what's wrong with the planet. Look at Bernie Madoff.

America to me is the greatest country in the world and the greatest experiment in freedom we'll ever have. But our forefathers, I'm sure, expected us to police freedom appropriately. In other words, you shouldn't have freedom to pipe in porn to kids' computers. But it exists. It's wrong. That's freedom run amok. You shouldn't have freedom to murder and pillage and get out on good behavior in seven years. What the hell is that about? That's the great challenge of society, is to police freedom appropriately. It's not happening at the moment.

So what's the role of a rock-and-roll band in all of this? Find solutions? Provide an escape?
The escape hopefully leads to some spiritual peace. I've sat in hundreds of shows where for three hours I was transported to a peaceful, hopeful place, whether it was Ray Charles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, John Fogerty. I've seen so many great bands, and I've gotta admit, that's what I think Bruce is doing better than any performer today; he's giving the audience, yes, an escape but also maybe some spiritual hope and confidence that they didn't have when they walked in the doors at 8. And maybe they leave with that and it lingers as they get back to the challenges of daily life.

***

The rest of Post Rock's Springsteen-related content, including archival reviews of D.C. concerts, can be found on our Bruce Springsteen index page.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 17, 2009; 11:20 PM ET Interviews , Springsteen
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Check out video highlights of the 2009 tour, including the great cover songs Nil Lofgren discussed in the interview, at http://citizenjeff.com/category/springsteen/

Posted by: citizenjeff | May 18, 2009 8:16 PM

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