Nils Lofgren at Sage, Gateshead on Friday 23rd January 2015

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Nils Lofgren may not be a household name in the twisted world of rock n roll but he has a pedigree stretching back to the late 60’s and a CV that includes the names of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young alongside a sizeable number of excellent albums under his own name. The fact that all three tiers at the Sage are pretty much sold out tells me that his career in the shadows has touched more than his sales figures might suggest. There’s no support tonight and Nils plays for just over two hours with all parts of his storied career re-visited. He’s quite a raconteur too and decorates his songs with tales of The Hollies, Charlie Watts, Neil Young and, of course, The Boss.

He takes the stage with a cheery wave and begins by picking out a delicate unnamed piece on, believe it or not, a harp. It serves to demonstrate that Nils is a dedicated musician with more than just a few flashy guitar solo’s up his sleeve. This is further underlined by the fact that he only picks up his electric guitar twice during the show. The first of those is in the song that follows “Too Many Miles” that marks out his territory well with his airy but passionate vocals, sharp lyrics and a great melody.

He introduces “New Holes in Old Shoes” as a song about defeating his demons and illustrates this with an amusing but convoluted tale about ice cream, chocolate, lack of alcohol and the Super Bowl – you had to be there I guess. As for the song itself Nils expands the horizons of his two man band by building up a guitar orchestra by recording different guitar licks, rhythms and lead lines into an amazing cacophony of sound. It’s an impressive trick that gives the whole thing an entirely new dimension and is used to great effect on other classic songs tonight.

Almost all of Nils’ own songs seem to be drawn from his personal experience and thus we get “Lost a Number” a funny but ultimately bitter-sweet tale of his encounter with a woman after a show. Later he plays “I Miss You Ray” from his most recent album “Old School” and recalls how he wrote the song for Ray Charles but realised later that it was a metaphor for the loss of dear friends for anyone. He relates a story of Springsteen’s much missed saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ death who was buried on Nils 60th birthday and Nils now sings the song as “I Miss You C” as a heartfelt tribute to Clarence.
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Nils gives thanks to the crowd for showing up over the years and recalls playing at the City Hall back in 1973 with Neil Young & Crazy Horse. “Girl in Motion” provokes some applause and allows Nils to build up another majestic soundscape of massed guitars. Next we get a song from his old band Grin, “Rusty Gun”, that famed Neil Young producer David Briggs, urged him to record. It’s presented tonight with some excellent mariachi trumpet playing from Greg Varlotta. There’s an excellent “Black Books” that was used in an episode of “The Sopranos” with some heavenly treated keyboards from Greg. There’s a tale attached to this one too as Nils reveals how as a younger man “When I drink, I end up in handcuffs” drawing laughter from the crowd.

A guitar orchestra performance of his epic ode to Keith Richards, his main-inspirer, “Keith Don’t Go” follows and he talks warmly of the so-called British Invasion of the 60’s and the impact it had on him, especially when he saw The Beatles. Nils switches to piano and drops in a tale about the recording of Young’s “Southern Man” from the “After the Gold Rush” album revealing how the piano solo was based on a speeded up “Roll Out the Barrel”. What follows is for me the most enjoyable part of the show as he delivers a joyous “Goin’ Back”, a beautiful “Irish Angel” and then a terrific “The Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet” from his classic first album.
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As the end approaches he laughingly messes up the introduction to a lovely “Like Rain” and then we get “Mud in Your Eye” a wonderful true story about his brother, a mean-mistreating woman, Little Richard and the revenge of Nils – go out of your way to hear it, you won’t be disappointed. Tonight we even get a tap dance from the versatile Varlotta to enhance the whole thing prompting loud applause from the crowd. For the final pre-encore song Nils delivers his powerful tribute to a prize fighter, “No Mercy” leaving a cheering crowd on their feet. He returns to shouted requests for a dozen different songs and laughs “Can’t hear any of that – but they all sound good!”. He picks up his electric guitar for the second time tonight for a romp through Springsteen’s “Because the Night” prefaced by a tale about his onstage gymnastics doing forward rolls over Bruce and Clarence Clemons during wild nights on tour with the E-Street Band. The show ends on a stupendous “Shine Silently” that brings the crowd to their feet in tribute as Nils departs to loud cheers. An excellent show that’ll have me digging through my old Nils albums for the next couple of weeks.

Reviewer: Greg Johnson
Photographer: Graeme Baty

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