August 14, 2023
Even before he was in the E Street Band, Nils Lofgren was a road warrior. Recruited at age nineteen by Neil Young for his band Crazy Horse, Lofgren had made the leap from prodigy to hometown hero and carved a niche for himself as one of America’s top guitarists and sidemen by his mid-twenties. And over the years, he became quite a presence in the DC area he called home. Denizens of the club scene grew accustomed to seeing him out and about at local clubs, sitting in with a famous friend, with a band or at a solo gig, on local radio or promoting one of his records at an in-store appearance.
He's remained in demand throughout his long career, having also been recruited by Ringo Starr for his All-Starr Band as well as rejoining Young for various iterations of his support bands. And he's been in the E Street Band for nearly forty years now, though he still seems like “the New Guy.” (After all, he was really the first E Streeter who did not have some sort of connection to the Jersey Shore music scene.) But he’s long since found his place in the band, met the proverbial Jersey Girl at the Stone Pony, and departed the DC area for the West Coast. With these major life changes, the constants for Lofgren over five-and-a-half decades as a professional musician have always been music and the road.
Lofgren's not as prolific as he used to be, however, which is why the recent release of Mountains was a welcome event for longtime fans. The result of a three-year COVID hiatus which, like it had for so many touring musicians, left him a bit at loose ends, the record finds him steeped in the blues and backed by many of the folks who’ve toured and recorded with him for decades, including drummer Andy Newmark and bassist/producer Kevin McCormick, as well as some high-profile guests like Ringo Starr and Neil Young.
According to comments he made for a recent Rolling Stone interview, this was a cathartic record for him – not only because it gave him something to do, but because it helped him deal with events and issues that had been troubling him, including the political and social upheaval of the last few years, his own rehab and recovery, and the death of his longtime hero, Charlie Watts. But the record doesn’t deviate much from earlier work; it’s folky and introspective, laced with blues guitar licks and understated vocals.
The record starts off with “Ain’t the Truth Enough” and “Only Ticket Out.” Bitter and confrontational, both songs investigate self-destructive behavior and the isolation that often follows. They’re first-person narratives about coming to terms with political and social upheaval as well as personal challenges; filled with ugly details and harsh words, they’re both mid-tempo, minor chord-driven – in other words, vintage Lofgren.
Next up is Lofgren’s cover of Springsteen’s “Back in Your Arms.” In that same Rolling Stone interview, Nils tells Andy Greene that once, during band rehearsal, Bruce had commented that “someone should cover this.” Apparently, Lofgren had always meant to record a cover version, but could never get around to it. During the Mountains sessions - when he finally had the time - he realized he needed a choir, so he called in the Howard (University) Gospel Choir and put E Street vocalist Cindy Mizelle to work as well. It’s a lush arrangement that takes full advantage both of Mizelle and the choir, but Lofgren’s heartfelt earnestness on this deeply personal song doesn’t quite match the emotional intensity of the original.
“Won’t Cry No More” is a straight-ahead electric blues two-step that Lofgren has dedicated to the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. “… [W]hen Charlie passed, it was really a shock. I got really angry, but also sad,” he told Greene. Processing grief, but also anger and frustration about climate change, war and violence, the song moves from personal to universal. “Even though I’ve lost a lot of friends and family, that one really threw me for a loop," he continued. “I used that song to kind of help me get through it.”
The wistful, melodic “I Remember Her Name” tells the story of the night he met his future wife Amy, exploring their instant connection and his attempts to get something started. But Amy disappears into the night, and the loneliness of showing up somewhere over and over hoping that certain person would be there eats at him; years go by until one night, she seeks him out at a gig in Arizona.
“Nothin’s Easy (For Amy)” evokes the classic Neil Young sound and feel– simple arrangement, straightforward lyrics, understated vocals. And Young’s distinctive tenor, always so melancholy and forlorn, can be heard on backing vocals. It’s a tune that would not be out of place on the Album Rock stations of the late 1970s.
The record closes with “Angel Blues,” a previously unfinished song that Lofgren resurrected because he felt that he needed to close things out with a peaceful vibe. “’…lean your weary halo on my wing and let the peace come,’ I just thought that was a great way to wrap up the journey of the record,” he told Andy Greene.
This is a record about struggling to connect – with other people, with reality. On “Nothin’s Easy,” Lofgren sings of “people searching with no clue” who are trying making sense of things they can’t control, trying to do the best they can and not always succeeding. It’s also about recognizing and overcoming trauma, both personal and universal. Over his long career, Lofgren has covered some of these topics before, and has shown a knack for creating memorable riffs and hooks on rockers like “Back it Up” and “Across the Tracks.” Mountains is not that type of record, though, and it’s not meant to be. Created as much for personal therapy as for enjoyment, it’s a contemplative and melodic journey of a record by a 72-year-old acknowledging that his time on earth is growing short and that maybe it’s time to get things right -personally and politically - before it’s too late. “What did we do with it? / yeah where did it go?” he sings on “We Better Find It.” It’s a statement of regret as much as a statement of purpose. And so the journey continues.