Nils Lofgren: Mountains [Album Review]

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Nils Lofgren
Cattle Track Road Records [2023]

Unless you’re one of those people that read the album credits, checking out who produced, who played bass, who guested on which guitar solo, there’s a chance you’ve missed Nils Lofgren’s storied career. While only 19 years old, Lofgren played guitar and piano on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album in 1970, which developed into a long association with him, contributing to some of Young’s more experimental albums of the late ’70s and ’80s. More recently, he joined Young and his band Crazy Horse to record Colorado (2019), Barn (’21), and World Record (’22). In his early 20’s, Lofgren led the DC band Grin and recorded four albums before embarking on a solo career in the mid-70s. While Lofgren released a series of strong singles, he never broke out big as a solo artist, although I used to hear his song about a famous boxing match, “No Mercy” on the radio quite a bit. When Little Steven left the E Street band to go solo, fronting his own band the Disciples of Soul, Bruce Springsteen called on Lofgren to fill in on tour in the mid-80’s and he played on a few of Springsteen’s albums before The Boss stepped away for his own solo adventures. When he launched an E Street Reunion Tour in ’99 and 2000, Little Steven was back on Bruce’s left side, but Lofgren was on his right, where they’ve both stayed for over the last two decades. They are currently on the road in Europe, returning to play the States (and make up a show in Columbus, Ohio) in September.

Now, playing in two of the biggest and most successful bands in Rock & Roll history would be enough for most people, but Lofgren recorded an album with Foreigner’s Lou Graham in ’87, has also gone out twice with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band summer tours, in ’89 and ’92, and over the course of nearly 5 decades has released nearly 30 solo albums, most on indie labels. Lofgren says writing the new songs for his album, Mountains, was therapy to cope with the pandemic and all that was going on in the world. The album’s opening track, “Ain’t the Truth Enough,” takes on the Jan. 6 insurrection, by making it personal, when a wife confronts her husband when he returns from the events of that day, his head “all filled with lies/kool-aid hypnotized.” It’s a crunchy rock track, with plenty of Lofgren’s slide guitar, with a solid drum beat throughout by Ringo himself, it’s got a classic rock feel, with a strong Gospel chorus harmonies by E Street Band background singer, Cindy Mizelle.

And the all star contributions include Neil Young sitting in on the acoustic love song “Nothing’s Easy,” the late David Crosby sang harmonies on the choruses of “I Remember Her Name,” bassist Ron Carter adding a noteworthy jazz bassline to the piano ballad “Only Your Smile” which is sung in duet with Mizelle, the Howard College Gospel Choir add their soaring soul harmonies to “Back In Your Arms,” and then Starr joins Lofgren a second time to sing the chorus of “We Better Find It.” But for the added layer of cool from Lofgren’s celebrity musician friends, when you drop into the gritty rocker, “Only Ticket Out,” with plenty of strong guitar playing from Lofgren in the Mike Campbell vein and solid vocal delivery of this Petty-like track, and it’s clear that he doesn’t need to be another artist’s sideman to be heard. Or take the blues rocker, dedicated to the late Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, “Won’t Cry No More,” which displays some serious lead playing over the solid rhythms of bassist Kevin McCormick, and drummer Andy Newmark. Mizelle’s vocal additions add just the write soulful seasoning, and Lofgren has produced in his own Scottsdale, AZ studio, maximizing the high quality recording capabilities.

Some of the strongest songwriting here, though, carries the weight of Lofgren’s appreciation for his wife and partner, Amy, who’s the “light shining through” in “Nothin’s Easy.” In “I Remember Her Name” he tells the story of their meeting and eventual romance and marriage, and she’s clearly the inspiration for “Only Your Smile,” and “Back in Your Arms.” Clearly spending most of the last 50 years playing music with two of the best known and loved songwriters has nurtured a similar skill in Nils Lofgren, a serious guitar player, and a fine front man in his own right. Just the killer guitar playing on “Dream Killer” and here and there throughout the album’s 10 tracks would be enough, but he’s given us some really fine songs as well, establishing himself as veteran solo artist among his peers.

“Ain’t The Truth Enough” / “Back In Your Arms” / “Nothin’s Easy”

Neil Young / Tom Petty / Bruce Springsteen

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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