Bruce Springsteen, still changing the game: An interview with longtime E Street Band guitarist Nils LofgrenBy Ricardo Baca | November 15th, 2012 | No Comments »
Your Twitter and Facebook feeds have slowed, surely, from what they looked like two weeks ago. But even amid this post-election recovery, social media still lights up with certain buzzworthy headlines – including this one from Nov. 9: “How Bruce Springsteen Elected Barack Obama.”
The Slate piece by writer Ron Rosenbaum makes a bold assertion, couched in a smart read, especially for fans of the Boss (and the president). But as entertainment and politics still seem uncomfortable bedfellows, it’s telling that Springsteen has been mentioned more than any of the other celebrities who spent time stumping for one of the candidates involved in the recent election.
Springsteen, who plays the Pepsi Center in Denver on Monday, is the voice of a generation – be it liberal, working-class, Everyman, whatever. Springsteen is the guy who released “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” in 1973. Springsteen is the guy who started his campaign speech in Madison, Wis., earlier this month not with an Obama-friendly chant of “four more years” but with a shout-out to New Jersey – and the other Northeastern states affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Springsteen is the guy who, after touring for nearly 50 years, is still changing his show nightly – an exciting though dangerous practice avoided by most modern touring acts.
“When I’m on the road and in the fold with Bruce, I always carry a guitar,” said Nils Lofgren, the E Street Band’s longtime guitar player. “Bruce is changing the show constantly, so I have the guitar there to work on the songs he adds. I have my own list of songs, too, that I’ve forgotten or things I’m guessing might come up soon. Because I have a good antennae with the E Street Band at this point.”
Bruce’s appetite for on-the-fly changes isn’t surprising to his fans. But it’s substantial nevertheless. Modern touring on that arena scale is painfully predictable. You can pull up a recent Katy Perry setlist or a week-old Madonna review to have a near-precise idea of how your local date will go, what the artist will say between songs, what the band will play.
“(But our sets are) changing more than ever now,” Lofgren said. “The other night, we changed the opening song on the way to the stage. We’re not following the setlist much these days. It’s (Springsteen’s) way of challenging himself and challenging a band that grew up in an era – we were one of the last in a generation where there was nothing but performing.
“There was no Internet, no YouTube, no crafting stuff on Pro Tools, no learning how to make great records before you knew how to sing in front of a crowd at a coffeehouse. The only game in town for all of us was: You gotta learn how to play in front of people. And that’s what we’re still doing.”
Springsteen’s latest record, “Wrecking Ball,” was released in March, and with song titles such as “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it’s clear his motivations and inspirations haven’t changed much since the ’70s and ’80s. But other songs on the record include “Death to My Hometown,” “This Depression,” “Rocky Ground,” “Shackled and Drawn” and the title track, and so the mood of the record clearly portrays America at a modern crossroads.
There’s a lot of weight in Springsteen’s catalog, but the boys keep it upbeat – and fresh, too.
“Even if I’m playing a classic like ‘Badlands’ with Bruce, I’m never playing it the same,” Lofgren said. “People don’t understand that. They say, ‘Of course you do,’ but I say, ‘No.’ If you notated my right and left hands, the chord positions – it might be the same E chord, but there are five different ways to play it.
“And with my right hand, there are countless rhythms. I have a great mix of my bandmates coming out of the monitors on the floor, so I hear my bandmates doing little different things, and I react immediately and improvise my rhythms with my right hand, and they all fit because I love the music and I understand it. And we all bring that to the table, which is crucial – much more important than virtuosity.”
A lot about Springsteen and his band is familiar. The message. The smile. The folk-rock aesthetic.
But a lot has changed for the guys, too. The biggest change here: Longtime sax man Clarence Clemons died in June 2011 because of complications with a stroke. His last recorded appearance with the E Street Band comes on “Wrecking Ball,” and his presence is missed in (and out) of the fold.
“Two things are happening simultaneously,” Lofgren said. “I miss Clarence terribly. When they show the film clip (of him) every night, I just sit there and stare into his eyes, and it’s like he’s right next to me. I have such a powerful 27-year memory of him on stage and off, ’cause we were very close friends and we spoke every week off the road and every day on the road. We’d do little homework before the shows.
“And at the same time I’m missing the heck out of him, I have to say, these are the best shows we’ve ever done.”