Possibly the mother of all box sets, Nils Lofgren’s Face the Music contains 169 tracks, 20 video clips, and a 136-page book, covering a big talent’s long career.
Nils Lofgren is surely a big talent. At 18 he was already in Neil Young's band, playing piano and guitar on the album After the Gold Rush. He went on to play on Young's legendary Tonight's the Night and its accompanying tour, and then briefly joined Crazy Horse. He landed a record deal in 1971 with his band Grin, and in ‘74 went solo. His eponymous solo album was critically acclaimed and respected, and he achieved radio hits in the mid-‘70s with “Back It Up”, “Keith Don't Go”, and “I Came to Dance”. Throughout the decade, Lofgren released solo albums and toured extensively. 1979 took him off piste to work with Lou Reed on The Bells and in 1984 he joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as Steven Van Zandt's replacement on guitar and vocals for the commercially groundbreaking Born in the U.S.A tour. Since then he's been on and off the road with Springsteen, and continues to release his own solo records. He’s also played on a number of other artists' records.
Face the Music is a limited edition retrospective box set of Lofgren's work, made up of nine CDs, one DVD, and an interesting book of liner notes. Over the years Lofgren has released something like 28 albums (including with Grin, live and greatest hits), many of which are difficult to find or are out of print. His discography is long and complicated with numerous versions of albums put out in different countries, so Face the Music is therefore an easy, fast track route of entry.
There are only so many ways to skin a cat, and an artist is presented with relatively few options as to how to present a full career of music as a box set. Most arrange their music chronologically as opposed to grouping their material together in a different way (say thematically). This means the listener can consider some kind of life story, as well as check out how the artist’s music has developed (or not). Lofgren chooses the chronological route, and it serves his music well – he’s had a busy and varied professional life, and his music, as well as the production, has, to a certain extent, changed as time has run on.
As a reviewer you can choose to try and cover such a release summarily, or in more detail. Lofgren and his team have clearly put a lot of time and effort in to the finished product, so it does deserve a detailed run-down.
CD1 (Grin, 1971-1973): Grin released four studio albums in three years, so there’s a lot packed in to the first CD. This is Lofgren as a young gun-slinger; highlights include “See What a Love Can Do”, featuring a harmony line sung by the Crazy Horse team of Neil Young, Danny Whitten, and Ralphie Molina; the ambitiously aggressive “Love or Else”, the whimsical ‘60s throwback of “Everybody Is Missing the Sun”, and the young man’s romantic vision of “Like Rain”. “Slippery Fingers” is a Jimi Hendrix style wig-out (interestingly Grin opened for Hendrix in 1970). “Moon Tears” has a great rock vocal, “Hi, Hello Home” (with Graham Nash) is warm and evocative, and “One More Time” is a gospel-inspired make-out session, with “three soulful girls claiming to be the original Vandellas”. A few of the songs are undoubtedly of their time, demonstrating a sweet, naive innocence through lush ‘60s sing-a-long harmonies and arrangements (“We All Sung Together”, “White Lies”, “Lost a Number”, and “Soft Fun”). For the last two albums, Nils’ brother Tom joined the group, and Grin had an unusual two lead vocalist sound, but they disbanded when recording contract offers ran out, finishing with a farewell concert at the Kennedy Center.
CD2 (1975-1977): In two years Lofgren put out three solo studio albums, Nils Lofgren, Cry Tough, and I Came To Dance. For Cry Tough, Lofgren used a radical new studio recently built for Sly Slone, whom Lofgren first met in 1968. Somewhat incredibly, Stone offered Lofgren a place to stay for the night, and Lofgren managed to sleep through one of Stone’s legendary parties; youth was always wasted on the young.
Lofgren also squeezed out two live albums in this period Back It Up!! (Live), and Night After Night. The latter was the results of months of touring, with Tom Petty as the opening act.
Stand-outs on CD2 include the melodic ennui of “One More Saturday Night”, the alpha male determination of “If I Say It, It’s So”, and the barely contained anger of “Rock and Roll Crook”. A live bootleg version of “I Don’t Want to Know” is admirable for its harmonic prowess. There are some surprising early influences; “The Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet” and “Rock Me at Home” sound like Steely Dan, and “Share A Little” hints at Lofgren’s love of R&B and funk. In “I Came to Dance”, Lofgren proudly declares something like “I ain’t Bob Dylan, but I don’t miss a beat”, easy to believe from this consummate musician. Despite this, the Rolling Stone Record Guide called the album “the worst record ever put out by an artist just about to hit the big time”. Let’s suppose this was just a critic willing an artist on.
CD3 (1979-1983): You wouldn’t necessarily make an association between Lou Reed and Nils Lofgren, but Bob Ezrin, Lofgren’s producer at the time, set them up to write together. Lyrics came effortlessly to Reed and melody to Lofgren, Reed dictating the words to Lofgren after a late night phone call. Three of the songs appeared on Reed’s The Bells, and Lofgren took away six, four of which appear here – “I Found Her”, “A Fool Like Me” (CD3), “Life” (CD5), and “Driftin’ Man” (CD6). Both “I Found Her” and “A Fool Like Me” (from Nils) contain undercurrents of Reed’s dark world view, but are set to Lofgren’s more optimistic music. Unexpectedly it's a good match.
Lofgren was also back working with Neil Young on Trans and the subsequent tour as part of the Royal Pineapples, but still released three studio albums, Nils, Night Fades Away; Wonderland, a best of; and A Rhythm Romance, a UK vinyl only collection. CD3 covers this period off admirably; the dramatic boxing tale of “No Mercy” well conveys the tension of a boxing match and received significant airplay at the time. Fan favourite “Shine Silently” is also radio-friendly, but cleverly understated. A lot of the tracks are of their time; in other words, there’s an unmistakable sense of being in the ‘80s. “You’re So Easy” has a disco groove, but the song still manages to stand up on its own terms today. The Del Shannon duet, “I Go To Pieces”, is good, upbeat ‘60s pop.
The selections from Wonderland benefit from a live, raw feel, particularly “Across The Tracks” and the cool reggae of “Everybody Wants”.
CD4 (1985-1992): Lofgren slowed down in this period by his usual standards having joined Springsteen’s band in ‘84. Despite this, Lofgren released three studio albums, Flip, Silver Lining, and Crooked Line, plus two best of’s, and a live album, Code of the Road (live) for Europe and Japan.
Flip was recorded during a break in the Born in the U.S.A tour, and the cover shows Lofgren upside down mid-way through a somersault, still playing guitar. The three representative songs from this album are fine, but struggle because of ‘80s over-production. 1991’s Silver Lining is a safer proposition; the vocals are live and clear, and it makes all the difference; “Walkin’ Nerve”, “Trouble’s Back” ,and “Bein’ Angry” are memorably fierce, and “Valentine” (with Springsteen’s vocal harmony) is a successful, dreamy enterprise.
Lofgren toured with the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band in ‘92 and released Crooked Line, with gonzo cover artwork by Ralph Steadman. Neil Young’s guest appearances are well represented: distinctive harmonica for the country’ish “You”, a great harmony line on “Someday”, and grungy guitar for “Drunken Driver”.
CD5 (1993-1998): Lofgren took a detour in ’93 to write a film soundtrack to Every Breath, channeling his inner bluesman and producing some sparse, moody material; his vocals on “Alone”, “Dream Come True”, and “Out Of The Grave” are gruffly Springsteen’esque, and it’s good to hear Lofgren in an unusually low key. The selections from ‘95’s Damaged Goods continue in this vein (Lofgren describes the feel as “grim, rough and stark”). “Only Five Minutes” is a funky/jazzy meditation on addiction which is reminiscent of Prince and “Setting Sun” has a pushed, raw vocal. Lofgren also returned to a song written with Lou Reed, “Life”; Reed’s lyrics are superb, and Lofgren delivers a great performance. The rest of the CD is made up of tracks from ‘97’s Acoustic Live. The highlight is “Black Books”, a dark, brooding song, well suited for its use in The Sopranos.
CD6 (1997-2001): This CD is made up of three tracks (all solid and dependable) from Code of the Road (live), a selection from Break Away Angel, some cuts from Tuff Stuff – Best of the All-Madden Team Band, and a couple from Nils Lofgren Favourites, 1990-2005. In this period Lofgren began more touring with the re-united E Street Band, so again it’s not surprising he had less time for his own projects; Break Away Angel was Lofgren’s first studio album in six years, and it had a more acoustic focus. Christine Vivona added classical harp to great effect and Lofgren seemed in romantic mood with songs like “I Found You” and “Love A Child”. As well, Lofgren turns in another Lou Reed collaboration, “Driftin’ Man”; Reeds’ lyrics are unexpectedly put to a country backing, for a thoroughly American hitch-hike. “Seize Love” has a wind-swept Spanish vibe and “Open Road” is charmingly adventurous.
The inclusions from Tuff Stuff – Best of the All-Madden Team Band, are surprisingly entertaining. Lofgren wrote these (mostly instrumental) pieces to fit over footage of NFL football, and they are certainly good-humoured, quirky, and fun.
“Tears On Ice” and “Misery”, from Nils Lofgren Favourites, 1990-2005), close CD6. “Tears On Ice” was originally an outtake from Crooked Line, and you can understand why Lofgren was proud of the song due to its clever lyrics; “Misery” was apparently inspired by the Stephen King book of the same name, and it conveys an appropriate level of confinement.
CD7 (2002-2011): This disc contains songs from yet more wide-ranging releases: 2003’s Nils Lofgren Band Live, studio albums Sacred Weapon, The Loner – Nils Sings Neil, Old School, and finally a track from a Springsteen tribute, One Step Up. Lofgren was still touring extensively with Springsteen during this time.
Lofgren’s dignified version of “The Star-Spangled Burner” in reaction to 9/11, from Nils Lofgren Band Live, is surprisingly far away from Jimi Hendrix’s version, and manages to avoid schmaltz. The picks from Sacred Weapon suggest the album may not have been Lofgren’s best, although the duet with Willie Nelson, “In Your Hands” is sweet, and the guitar on “Fat Girls Dance” is awesome.
Despite the title, Lofgren purposefully tried to avoid karaoke interpretations for his cover album of Neil Young songs The Loner– Nils Sings Neil. Initially Lofgren was apparently unsure himself about the concept, but the three songs chosen here, “I Am a Child”, “Mr. Soul”, and “World on a String”, are sparsely effective.
Old School finds Lofgren thinking about the aging process; the title track (with vocal assistance from Lou Gramm) is a raucous look at modern society, as is “60 is the new 18”. Other standouts are “Miss You Ray”, a worthy tribute to Ray Charles, although the song is cleverly written so that it can be applied to lost ones universally. “Dream Big” shows off Lofgren’s virtuosity when he combines classical harp and tap-dancing; as an idea it sounds odd, but if you check out the video on YouTube or on the accompanying DVD I doubt you will be unimpressed. “Ain’t Too Many of Us Left” was inspired by a telephone call from Neil Young just before Lofgren underwent hip surgery; Sam Moore shares vocals with Lofgren, and it’s a worthy effort.
The last song on this CD is Lofgren’s cover of Springsteen’s “Wreck on the Highway”, an intricate electric version, and an unusual interpretation which was well worth including.
CD8 (unreleased): As one would hope with an enterprise of this nature, there’s a generous helping of previously unreleased material in the way of demos and obscure tracks left behind from recording sessions. CD8 starts chronologically with the Grin days. First-up is an outtake of “Keith Don’t Go”, which was apparently found in a closet full of old tapes. Neil Young fans will drool because Young is prominently featured on piano and backing vocals. Lofgren considers it the best and most emotional band recording of this song, and it’s certainly impressive. Other interesting tracks include Grin’s original raw recording of “It’s My Duty”, the unusual striking melody of “Some Must Dream” (a duet with Lou Gramm), and “Awesome Girl”, a poppy home demo with Rick James. A few of the tracks are relatively personal, such as “Whatever Happened to Muscatel” (an ode to the sweet wine composed with author Clive Cussler) and “Bullets Fever” (about the basketball team, the Washington Bullets), but they give an idea of the breadth of Lofgren’s interests.
CD9 (unreleased): The last CD has another twenty-one unreleased tracks, beginning with the Flip period. Songs worth seeking out are “You Are the Melody”, a relaxed reggae track suiting Lofgren’s light voice, “Face the Music”, and “Heart Like a Hammer”, which both have a cool blues groove, and “Mad, Mad World”, a gentle scuffle about General Chuck Yeager. Again there are some more personal tracks, including a short music commercial for a karate teacher, some very early demos, and an alternate version of “Miss You Ray” (which becomes “Miss You “C”, in memory of Clarence Clemmons). On the whole you can understand why most of the tracks are outtakes, but for Lofgren fans they will be insightful by providing a broader picture of Lofgren’s enthusiasms.
DVD: The 20-track DVD collects together rare promo footage, and acts as kind of a visual “greatest hits”. As already mentioned, “Dream Big” shows off Lofgren’s tap and harp skills, and is a real treat. Also worth seeking out are the five songs from a 2004 Grin re-union, especially “See What a Love Can Do” and “Moon Tears”. There’s a great final interview on the art of adapting to wind things up, although I expect we haven’t seen the last of Lofgren yet.
There's probably a thousand more things that could be said about this mammoth endeavour, but time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. All in all, Face the Music is testament to Lofgren’s impressive career and demonstrates Lofgren is a lot more than just a notable sideman. Right from the get-go Lofgren had a cult following, and the level of detail contained in this box set will be of great service to his fans. In itself, Face the Music makes any type of debate over Lofgren's commercial success redundant because there is so much good music here. Listening to the CDs in order traces the arc of modern popular music, from late ‘60s innocent pop, to straight-ahead ‘70s rock, to ‘80s over-production, with a restoration to balance in the ’90s and beyond. Probably the best material is contained on CD1 (the Grin years) and CD5 (made up of more mature, dark work), but there are good songs on every shiny surface. The packaging is sturdy, with a sketch signed by Lofgren, and as a niche proposition this box is a real way of getting to know a versatile artist in depth. Casual listeners should be entertained if they can afford the outlay, but there’s no doubt die-hard fans will be enthralled.
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Above photo courtesy of Nils Lofgren