The E Street Band’s finest on how gigging in Rome when the Pope’s in town can be detrimental to your punctuality…
What was your first gig and how did it go?
“I was five years old and I started bugging my parents for accordion lessons which they financed for almost 10 years. One of my teachers took me with him to a giant spaghetti dinner, some big structure where there was a lot of adults having dinner in rows and rows of tables, and we strolled up and down playing famous Italian folk songs. That was certainly my first gig - no pay, but I was performing in public.
“Fast-forward to guitar playing, I don’t even have a memory of the first one, y’know? I was in so many young bands that just played covers of the great music on the radio at the time in the '60s…”
Describe your current stage rig…
“I’ve been using Takamine acoustic guitars and I go through a series of foot pedals featuring chorus, compression, some delay pedals and sometimes a POG - I use the simpler version that just has three dials on it - lows, highs and volumes.
“I use an overdrive, a Barber Burn Unit; it gives you two different settings for overdrive and I’m going to run my Stratocaster through the same rig - I’m going to play some electric on the upcoming tour - and A/B it back and forth just for simplicity.
“With The E Street Band I use a similar rig, more advanced with foot pedals and presets and all that, and I run those through Fuchs amps with 2x12 inch cabinets, designed by Buzzy Feiten. A lot of the time, for gigs around town, I’ll use a Blues Junior and I’ve just recently got a Fuchs combo amp I’ll bring with me to England with me on this upcoming tour.”
What’s your best tip for getting a good live sound?
“Have a guitar that you love the sound of and plays well. Today, there are so many amps out there; I tend to like the type that have two volumes and a gain control so that if you want a saturated sound you can push the amp a little bit.
“If you’re playing a little coffee house in front of 80 people you don’t want to blow everyone out of the room. So something like that at least gives you the freedom to play around with a couple of different volumes, get the saturation you like but set the master volume for the room you’re in.”
What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?
“I would say my notebook and pencil. My notebook has an enormous amount of information on songs I want to play, lyrics for the shows that I’ve forgotten… I’m also working on a new album that I hope to have done by the end of the year. So it’s not really musical, but it’s a critical item.”
What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?
“When I walk out in front of an audience I like to arrange the early part of the set with songs I think might be familiar. I try to rearrange the songs a bit so they’re engaging for me, but I hang onto the core of the song so that they’re recognisable and I don’t aggravate the audience.
“In the last decade or so, my wife Amy has encouraged me to start telling more stories which, even though I used not to like to do that because it breaks up the music, I’ve found that I’ve wound up with quite a few interesting stories, and so I try to throw one or two of those in there. The energy I get from the audience - and the more I keep them on my side and enjoying the night - the better it is for me to let the music grow the night into something special.”
What’s the worst journey you’ve had either to or from a gig?
“In '83, I believe, we were doing a stadium tour with Neil Young and the Trans band. We were touring in Rome and Ralph Molina, the drummer, and I headed out mid-afternoon to do some homework and get ready for the gig. Very long story short, we came to realise that, because of a traffic jam, which we didn’t realise at the time was the Pope crossing town, we were in danger of missing the show.
“So we actually got out of the taxi - we could see the venue miles in the distance - and decided to walk. After a while we realised that the traffic jam was so severe that there were places where you couldn’t even walk between the cars and it got to the point where we got so desperate, hot, sweaty and panicked that we started climbing on the roofs of the cars, hopping from roof to roof for probably the better part of a mile just to get to a point where we could find pavement to walk on to get to the actual venue.
“We showed up aggravated, sweaty, we looked horrible, we were completely upset and not in good shape - but we made the gig.”
What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?
“There’s been a lot of those! Just recently on The River tour with The E Street Band there were a couple of large venues where we would get lost on the way to the stage, and it was funny because it’s a big-time organisation, everyone’s supposed to know where they’re going - and in general they all do - but there were a couple of times when we’d get lost on the way to the stage.”
What’s your favourite live album?
“That’s a good one… Someone gave me an old album of James Brown Live At The Apollo; if I had to grab a live album to put on, it might be that one.”
Nils Lofgren starts a major solo tour in the UK in October 2018.