Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band to play Consol on April 22

Bruce Springsteen shows regularly go over three hours, according to guitarist Nils Lofgren.
Bruce Springsteen shows regularly go over three hours, according to guitarist Nils Lofgren.
Photo by Jo Lopez
| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 5:55 p.m.

Imagine going into the recording studio to cut some new songs for the first time in years — always a daunting prospect. It would be nice if you could call up some old friends, people whose instincts you trust, for a vocal here, a guitar part there.

Like, if you were, say, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

Of course, the list of people who can do this is a short one, mostly consisting of one Nils Lofgren. He was a crucial part of classic Neil Young albums like “After the Gold Rush” (1970) and “Tonight's the Night” (1975) and joined Springsteen's E Street Band in 1984. Parallel to that, he's maintained a long and fruitful solo career.

On May 27, Lofgren will be releasing a nine-CD, one-DVD box set, “Face the Music,” spanning his entire career (with prominent contributions from a few old friends).

At the moment, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — who were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10 — are embarking on a typically grueling, no-emotion-gone-unexpressed tour of the United States, including a Pittsburgh gig April 22. Lofgren, 62, is known for his extremely energetic onstage persona and has the scars to prove it.

“For me, personally, last tour, I fell a few times, tore some rotator cuffs, popped a muscle in my calf,” Lofgren says. “I've got two metal hips from five years ago, because I destroyed my hips with basketball and stage flips on the trampoline.”

He's got the harsher, noisier guitar sound of Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) helping carry the load, guitar-wise, for this tour. Still, there are few chances to take it easy.

“Yeah, we're regularly over three hours,” Lofgren says. “It's really an improv show that covers a lot of emotional territory. At this point, the last thing Bruce has on his mind is (set) length. Some nights, you feel like you did a three-hour show and somebody tells you you did 3:40. Some nights you feel like it was a four-hour show, and somebody tells you that you played 2:58. It depends on the intensity.

“We're changing so many things. You get used to the way things flow, but when you throw that out the window — which we're doing regularly, taking signs from the audience, or calling songs way out of order, or things we haven't done in a long time — part of the excitement, to me, is that there's no boundaries, no limits. Every night's a giant adventure, musically.”

After one of those marathon gigs, it's not so simple to just turn the energy level down.

“It's kind of a neat combination of exhilaration and exhaustion,” Lofgren says. “You're so wound up and beat up that you can't sleep. There's a kind of comfortable euphoria of exhaustion — you gave it your all.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lofgren has become an expert at taking it easy between gigs. At his age, rock-star behavior tends to take a backseat to self-preservation.

“Long ago, I just accepted that I'll be up quite a few hours after the show,” Lofgren says. “Have tea, read, take a hot bath, meditate, or just be quiet with the band, have a drink. Whatever you do, you'll be awake. That's fine. At some point, the exhaustion takes over.”

That, and adequate preparation before gigs, are a good deal of why Lofgren has no trouble holding on to one of the most coveted gigs in rock 'n' roll.

“I like to go a few hours at least ahead of the band, so I have a couple hours to myself,” Lofgren says. “That goes out the window when Bruce and the band arrive. I like to get there early to go down my list a bit, for my own peace of mind. I'm pretty good at second-guessing Bruce. I like to check out songs that have gotten away from me.”

“There are songs you'll never forget, like ‘Cadillac Ranch.' Anything based in the blues is pretty straight ahead, you just follow Bruce's singing. But you can't remember 400 songs at the same time — so, they can get away from you. I just like to chip away at them a little bit, so I don't feel so in the dark on some things. It's just kind of a psychological preparation so that when we do walk out there, I can kind of shut my mind off and start reacting, and turn to my instincts and what I feel. Of course, I'm always keeping an eye on Bruce, so I get all the surprises and cues that are coming at us all night long.”

Working closely with legends like Springsteen and Neil Young for so long has given Lofgren some insight into the nature of staying power in rock 'n' roll.

“There's a lot in common, in the sense that they stayed authentic and true to themselves, and pushed themselves to keep growing and keep creating,” Lofgren says. “There's a lot more similarities than differences, other than the timbres of their voices. They both love to have people in their band, and both give you a lot of freedom but expect you to stay ‘down in it.' Which is simple to do when you're playing great songs like that.”

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