Nils Lofgren – Live at Strathmore 5/5/2011

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Mixing business with pleasure can be a good thing.  In the Washington D.C. area for a week, I was looking for a hotel-room avoidance opportunity.  When you travel, why not see if there’s something interesting to do after hours? 

So I had a choice, Crosby/Nash on a Monday or Nils Lofgren on a Thursday?  I wasn’t familiar with anything Lofgren had done, other than having an awareness that he’s played with Bruce Springsteen since the 1980’s.  Prior, he contributed to several of Neil Young’s early solo albums, led a group named Grin of whom folks folks around me seemed to be particularly fond, and had released a number of solo albums prior to signing on with The Boss.) In any case, the unfamiliar won out over the too-familiar.

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The Music Center at Strathmore is 6 years old, and the auditorium has a capacity of 1976.  The Center is the Washington home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and I have to say I was impressed.  The theater itself is decorated with IMG_1459light color wood, has great sight-lines, and most importantly, awesome acoustics – clear enough not only for the music/lyrics, but audience responses wherever they originated.  Other plusses were a ticket ordering system that provides a very clear seat selection depiction, no “convenience” fees, air vents under each sent, and free parking. Throw in friendly staff (Bill Carey - Director of Donor Relations, in my experience), and the venue is a win.

The disadvantage?  Well, to hear coworkers tell of it, a frightening commute to get there from Northern Virginia.  I’m from Atlanta.  Traffic is no stranger.  Otherwise, as is common for “performing arts centers,” camera use was frowned upon (Happily, I’m including a couple pictures that someone else took from the balcony).

The concert began shortly after it's scheduled 8:00 p.m. start, and continued for 2 hours and 15 minutes without an intermission.  The performance was billed as Nils Lofgren & Friends Acoustic.  This began true enough, with Lofgren expertly picking a song on a harp, without any of the saccharine notions that may come to mind.  He was backed by his brother Tommy on rhythm guitar, Greg Varlotta on keyboards (and later, trumpet and guitar) and Mary Ann Redmond for occasional backing vocals. Next, he picked up his electric guitar for a rocking version of a song of which I knew the name.  He has a pleasing, well pronunciated 70’s Middle of the Road voice, similar to Al Stewart, perhaps, but without the distinctiveness.

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He followed this with 6-8 songs on solo acoustic guitar.  At age 60, and with 43 years “on the road,” Lofgren easily commands the stage.  Though a bit “vertically challenged,” he projects “larger than life” stage experience without invoking celebrity, not an easy thing. 

What emerged over the evening was that Lofgren is a very positive minded artist.  His lyrics are observational but lack biting commentary or political bents, at least to my limited listening.  Add frequent mentions of family, the occasional on-stage guitar contributions of two additional brothers, and a return to the area where he grew up, and there was a visible enjoyment in the performance that cast off any notions of “just another tour stop.”

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Memorable moments were Greg Verlotta’s percussive beats via a couple hammy tap dances (no drums or bass were included), an awesome guitar solo on “Girl in Motion” accompanied by an engaging rhythm guitar that Lofgren looped in, winning performances of (I think) “No Mercy,” “Goodbye Ray,” “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (made popular by Roberta Flack), an entertaining delivery about Dancing (which may be a completely revised version of “I Came to Dance”  or a new song), “Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet,” and (I think) “Shine Silently.” 

In part due to familiarity, his performance of Springsteen’s “Because the Night” was also a highlight.  He made no attempt to sound like Springsteen, but he owned the song, both vocally and with an excellent extended electric guitar solo.

Giving a quick listen to samples of these songs post-concert, many of them feel dated in their original versions – but they sound fresh in their delivery today.  While all of the songs spoke of an excellent singer/songwriter, they generally lack infectious hooks that probably contributed held him back from greater commercial success.  Ah, but the guitar work!  Special, indeed.

Lofgren also is doing what more artists ought to do and appear to be increasingly doing.  Without the support of major label promotions, Lofgren has his fan base covered – a Facebook page and a website that offers several free downloads as well as guitar instruction videos.  He also graciously makes it known that he’s available for photos and autographs following the concert.  Hmm. 

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