Nils Lofgren’s latest album, Blue With Lou, contains five previously-unreleased songs he co-wrote with Lou Reed. The album serves not only as a fitting tribute to his late friend and collaborator but a reminder of Lofgren’s prowess as a guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, and vocalist.
The backstory? In 1978 Lofgren was working on his album Nils with producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, KISS, Pink Floyd). The former Grin member had written a handful of tunes with six-string wunderkind Dick Wagner, but there was still a missing element. Ezrin, who’d produced Reed’s classic Berlin effort, suggested a meeting with the Velvet Underground maestro. The trio watched football, then talked shop. Lofgren didn’t feel his words were his greatest strength; Reed, who could turn a street hustler’s toothpick into a novellike set of lyrics, constantly fussed over the music.
Lofgren slipped his newfound friend a tape with 13 tunes, wondering if there’d be synergy. In the wee hours of the morning, some weeks later, Reed woke Lofgren up with a phone call and dictated a set of lyrics for each of the musical numbers. Reed ultimately used three of the tunes for his 1979 set The Bells; Lofgren used some songs for Nils. Others showed up over the next 20-plus years.
Reed’s death in 2015 drove home the preciousness of the collaboration and, in 2017, Lofgren retreated to his Phoenix, Arizona studio with a basic trio lineup (recalling his early work with Grin) featuring drummer Andy Newmark (Pink Floyd, David Gilmour, Bowie) and bassist Kevin McCormick (Jackson Browne, John Mayall). Vocalist Cindy Mizelle, who did a five-year stint alongside Lofgren in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, adds extra charm along the way. The remaining songs from that original tape are: “Attitude City”, “Give”, “Talk Thru the Tears”, “Don’t Let Your Guard Down”, and “Cut Him Up”. They blend seamlessly with the other material here, including a remake of the aforementioned “City Lights”.
What matters most, though, is not the pedigree of the songs but the execution. Lofgren rises to the occasion, playing with a sense of abandon and danger that recalls his best work with Grin and blistering, if overlooked, live albums, including 1977’s indispensable Night After Night. As exemplified on his 2014 career retrospective, Face the Music, he’s an artist who stares down adversity, lays waste to fear, and displays grace under pressure.
The prescience of the lyrics proves especially remarkable. The opening “Attitude City” reads as an indictment of the chasm between the one percent and the underclasses, while “Give,” with a throbbing, propulsive rhythm figure from Lofgren is a powerful reminder of the Golden Rule. It pops with an irresistible urgency, enhanced by the guitarist’s volume swells and the insistent beat of Newmark’s call-and-response drumming. (It would be a shame for this band notto commit to a live recording.)
It’s not all a plea for activism. The Broadway-esque “Talk Thru the Tears” features plangent piano chords and soul-searing lead lines that rival Jeff Beck at his Blow By Blow lyricism. “Pretty Soon” reminds us that Lofgren is one of those rare axe-slingers who can say as much with his acoustic rhythm maneuvers as he can with his soaring electric work. Whereas “Rock or Not” could come off as a middling stomp in the hands of amateurs here sizzles with an of-the-moment vibe which reminds us this is a rock ‘n’ roll show above all else.
If there’s a focal point, it’s the titular track which features Newmark and McCormick locking into a groove that puts the storied 1960s powerhouse the Wrecking Crew to shame. With Mizelle providing the perfect vocal counterparts we quickly witness a rebirth of go-for-the-throat rock ‘n’ roll that begs us to race down the street to some sweat-soaked room to hear the Artist in the heat of the moment.
The closing, tender “Remember You” is a tribute to the musician’s late dog, Groucho, though it never reads as overly sentimental and its haunting chorus and guitar figures place the tune among this collection’s best. There, as most often on Blue With Lou, Lofgren and band play with the fire and vigor of musicians in the earliest stages of their career rather than ones with a half-century or more of experience behind them.
Were Blue With Lou a baseball, it’d be out of the park, its destination unknown, as it continues its journey deep into the star-filled sky, high above the houses, its final destination unknown but surely somewhere great.