10 Songs that Best Showcase Nils Lofgren's Sideman Skills
Nils Lofgren performs with Neil Young.
Photo by Gijsbert Hankeroot, courtesy Nils Lofgren
In this week's cover story, we speak with Phoenix-based guitarist Nils Lofgren about his new collection, Face the Music, which documents 45 years of Lofgren's solo work. But his work as a sideman with some of the biggest songwriters in music history -- including Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, and more -- has been essential to his journey.
Here are 10 select cuts that showcase Lofgren's singular touch.
Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, "Photograph" from Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band 
Recorded live on Starr's 1989 tour, where Lofgren backed the Beatle with a bandmates Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, Clarence Clemons, Dr. John, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Jim Keltner, and Zak Starkey. The term "super group" often gets abused, but it's apt here as the ensemble takes on Starr's touching ballad "Photograph" with sentimental bluster.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Mavis Staples, Robbie Robertson, Nils, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" from Mean Old Man 
Included as a bonus track on "the Killer's" 2010 album Mean Old Man, Lofgren soulfully accompanies Lewis and gospel queen Mavis Staples. "Anytime I get to play with people of that caliber I get to learn something and it's a great chapter," Lofgren says.
Neil Young, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" from After the Gold Rush 
When Young enlisted the 18-year-old Lofgren to play piano on After the Gold Rush, Lofgren protested, saying he wasn't a professional piano player. Young cited Lofgren's history with the accordion, and Lofgren obliged. His beautiful piano work can be heard on songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." "He said, 'We just need some simple parts, and we're sure you can figure them out.' And I did."
Bruce Springsteen, "Nothing Man" from The Rising 
When Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band in early 2002, it was for The Rising, an album "dealing with as great a tragedy as we've ever had in our country's history," Lofgren says. When Springsteen and producer Brendan O'Brien left the sessions to record strings in Nashville, Lofgren was given the option of taking the day off or a chance to work alone with engineer Nick DiDia. He chose the latter, working up Roy Buchanan-inspired soundscapes to adorn Springsteen's "haunting lyric."
Neil Young, "Mr. Soul" from Trans 
Neil Young's vocoder-layered and synthesizer heavy Trans baffled critics and record buyers alike in 1982. But Trans band, including Lofgren, was simply ahead of the curve. The approach works shiningly on songs like Young's early composition "Mr. Soul," forecasting electronic music's eventual influence on rock.
Paul Rodgers, "Abandoned Love" from Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International 
Paul Rodgers of Bad Company shows of a sensitive, unaffected vocal on this Bob Dylan song, originally slated for the songwriter's 1976 LP Desire. Lofgren's harmonies, guitar, and accordion cast the song in a roots rock light.
Willie Nelson & Al Green, "It's Rainin' In My Heart" from Outlaws and Angels 
Expertly mining the middle ground between country and R&B, Lofgren's shimmering guitar work compliments the distinct edges of Green and Nelson's voices.
Neil Young, "Southern Man" from After the Gold Rush 
Lunch breaks seem to equal creative freedom for Lofgren. With producer David Briggs and Young out to for a bite, Lofgren and drummer Ralph Molina devised the "up-tempo polka beat" breakdown that abruptly elevates the jagged guitar solo in Young's Civil Rights dirge "Southern Man." "It was a byproduct of me and Ralphie jamming," Lofgren says.
Bruce Springsteen, "Tunnel of Love" from Tunnel of Love 
Following the big themes of Born in the USA, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love found the songwriter meditating on marriage and responsibility. The Boss embracing synthesizers and drum machines, and Lofgren's strange, otherworldly solo seems to come out of nowhere on the title track, ending with a long sustained note that evokes the less-is-more approach of Neil Young. "It was a very unusual piece for Bruce - it just didn't sound like your normal Bruce Springsteen song," Lofgren says. "Very powerful, but idiosyncratic -- some unusual chords. It really threw me for a loop, and we spent a whole afternoon just crafting a solo with a lot of foot pedals."
Neil Young, "Speaking Out" from Tonight's the Night 
Conceived as a wake for Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, Tonight's the Night is as unhinged an album as ever recorded by a major recording star. It stands out as one of Young's finest records, with Lofgren's lyrical guitar phrasing as a key component. Producer David Briggs' cut it live, with an emphasis on spontaneity. "It's a harsh record, certainly not for everyone," Lofgren says. "But it's so guttural and visceral. It's hard to argue its power whether you like it or not, or can take it or not."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.