Monday, November 21, 2011

Nils Lofgren - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Nils Lofgrens' latest solo record, Old School came out in November, and I called it maybe the best album I had heard in a year of great releases. In a year that has seen classic rock artists such as Leslie West, Glenn Hughes, and many others put out work that matched or even eclipsed their past glories, this is no faint praise. Old School is imbued with great songwriting, singing, and of course, heaps of tasty, brilliant guitar playing.

When the opportunity to speak with Lofgren came up, I was excited to hear his thoughts on the record - what I wasn't prepared for was being so impressed with the artist as a person. Not that I really should have been shocked - you don't get to work beside the best writers, and musicians of your day without having not only great musical skills, but also exceptional social skills. This interview turned out a bit different for me. Instead of being my usual semi-over chatty self, I was more than happy to allow Lofgren to speak with free reign, and I attempted to let his comments lead me to my subsequent questions. It was only when I listened back over our chat that it became apparent that I had followed the correct path. Nils Lofgren is a huge talent, but he has managed to remain humble. His 43 years on the road with the biggest names in rock, and as a leader of his many solo endeavors has made him a truly wise sage. He wouldn't use those words, but I feel perfectly free to do so. As I listened back to my recording of the interview, I realized that as I listened, I had learned, and for the I am always grateful.

I'll keep my editorial comments to a relative minimum, and let Lofgren's words elegantly speak for themselves.

RGD: Nils, congratulations on the new record. I've spent a lot of time with it, and it is one of my favorite releases of 2011.

Lofgren: Oh, thanks so much, Tony. I really worked very hard on it. I took my time, and felt like I really did something I could feel good about!

RGD: I had read some reviews before I heard the record, and it seemed that many were focusing on your angst, anger, and concerns over the state of the world, and your personal issues (Nils had both hips replaced several years ago, and had suffered through the deaths of close friends and bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons). However when I heard the record, I was most taken, not so much by any sense of vitriol, but rather a lot of resilience and hope, both in the writing and your voice. Was this your intention?

Lofgren: Yeah, I think that's very accurate. I just wanted it to be a very emotional journey through all the things that I was feeling at 60 years old. So I've got a little wisdom, a surprising amount of fear, anger, and concern about my planet and what's around me, but a lot of hope about the human spirit. I just wanted to write honestly about all of it. I'm very grateful to be in good shape - after two great tours with E-Street to come home, and I was excited to jump into my next batch of songs. I really feel good about how it came out.

RGD: The record has a great sound, very sonically satisfying and cohesive. How long did you spend writing, recording and mixing it?

Lofgren: Man, I chipped away at it for over a year, but it wasn't until the last four months that I really started getting into the twelve hour days - the focused tunnel vision, to get it done. Part of the record, the theme of it, is that I've been on the road for 43 years, and I do leave home too much. My family understands, but it does get harder as you get older, so I'm finding a balance between touring, keeping sharp musically, and just working -  staying at home, and helping my wife, Amy, with our six dogs, and being in the studio, but with the doors open. I always told her, like, 'Look, it's not like don't bother me, I'm busy being creative.' It's like, 'Bother me! I'm home, I'm here to help. If a dog needs to go to the vet, interrupt me - I can turn the machines off, it's not a public studio, it's my own homegrown room.' So, I could just do whatever needed to be done, I can run errands, I can go out with my wife. If I felt like turning the machines back on and working a couple of hours, I could just pick up where I had left off.

It was a very balanced purity making this record. I wanted to keep it emotional, so I set out to not even try recording anything until I could sing and play every song as a performance piece, not a work in progress to be crafted later. As a result, I got a lot of live vocals - 10 of the 12 vocals are live in the studio with the main guitar. It was a lot more fun to fill in the blanks and produce around it when I felt like I had a really good performance as the core.

RGD: Historically, your reputation has been as a tremendous live performer, and as a remarkable guitarist, yet it is a subtle album in terms of guitar histrionics - there are lots of amazing and tasty licks, but they never intrude on the songs, or your vocal performances. Is this a result of having worked with so many great artists and songs?

Lofgren: Well, thank you. As grateful as I am for my reputation as a guitarist and instrumentalist, I feel like I originally fell in love with music through The Beatles, The Stones, and songs. I still feel that I am a song player first, rather than a lick player. When I play music, I listen to the song and it kind of helps me to stay out of the way of the singer, and what's being said. There's always plenty of room to get to get licks in, but I think that is my main attribute, as opposed to being an instrumentalist looking to embellish the singer/songwriter - I'm a singer/songwriter playing an instrument.

RGD: You've said that Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen are your favorite songwriters. What have you been able to take from each of them?

Lofgren: Well, it began back in the '60s, really before I had heard those guys. I was listening to the whole explosion of the sixties - The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, the British Invasion, Motown, Stax/Volt, Holland, Dozier, and Holland, going back even to Burt Bacharach, all those great songs and songwriters, show songs even. My mom and dad danced and played big band show music as I was growing up. I studied and played classical accordion for ten years, and entered contests and competitions. I studied accordionists, and the best instrumental and classical pieces ever written - I got really inside of them as a musician, so I had a great background.

At this point, you want to do something that is authentic for yourself, but just the act of listening to the great songwriters in history, and certainly working in bands with Neil Young - doing records, crafting shows, and then performing them in front of people. Just by osmosis you get a very inside look at how a great writer presents his song. A lot of times, along the way, dealing with Bruce - he might have a song in progress, and you get to watch that from an inside track. But, it's no longer a thing of emulating or imitating. That's all gotten to be a part of my experience and inspiration, and just as a natural thing you look for stuff you like to go by, and you grab on to something you can be proud of.

RGD: Let's talk about a song on Old School, that you must be proud of, Dream Big. How did this one develop? The arrangement is brilliant, utilizing electronic sounding beats, a harp, strings that bring to mind Philadelphia soul via Gamble and Huff, and the mantra, "dream big, work hard, stay humble."

Lofgren: Yeah, thanks. That's an unusual piece! It all started when my wife, Amy, got me a harp - a lever harp, for Christmas two years ago. I was just picking out some early stuff on it, trying to find my way around a few simple licks, and you lean it against your shoulder and you play the harp with two hands. I was standing in our guest room, watching NFL football, and it just stands there, so I started picking it backwards - just plucking out notes, and I came up with that little riff. It's a very dark and haunting riff, and I just noodled in my brain, 'you gotta dance a lot....sing a lot,' you know, work hard, be humble. It developed into a song, and then it got a bit more ominous in the sense that, from my perspective it's not extracurricular anymore - I need to keep dreaming big, and try to find a way to stay humble and work hard. Even if you're crippled, dance in your head, dance in your heart, find a way to feel like you are still growing and learning. Otherwise, at 60, I'd be screwed. This was just a somewhat ominous presentation of these themes.

When you get older and you're an adult, you keep looking at the childish things, and they can really hurt or kill you - but child-like things, things that are joyous, that don't hurt anybody, and on the contrary engage people of any age are beautiful. To keep your head and heart open for experiences - especially as you get older.

RGD: Let's stay with the theme of aging. Since your hip replacements, are you able to still enjoy a little basketball?

Lofgren: I can go out and shoot around, and play horse, I just have to accept that I can't play the violent three on three games that I used to play. My new hips just can't handle that. I mistakenly thought that when I got my new hips that I had ordered the ones with Flubber, and that I'd be able to leap and fly, and dunk, and be good to go, but the doctor told me that the trampoline has to stay in the closet - no more flips off of drum risers, and I can't play basketball like I used to, unless I wanted to be a cripple. I was hobbling around for years with the pain, so I'm going to take good care of them. I'm jumping around and dancing onstage, I just can't do the violent impacts that I used to do - but, yeah, I can shoot around and re-live the glory days as I look for new and less harmful ways to use my new hips.

Actually, this new song, Dream Big, that we were just talking about, I'm playing harp with my right hand, I'm tap dancing - the percussion you hear is me tap dancing through a gated reverb and an octave divider. It's a very unusual piece that I do live - then I pick up the guitar, play a solo, and then I go back to the harp. There's a lot of stuff going on there - it's all along the lines of dreaming big, Tony.

(In an unintentional demonstration of his abilities as a multi-tasker, Nils sent me a link to the excellent Youtube video of the song, shot by Rose A. Montana at a Lofgren solo show in New Jersey back in October, as he gave his commentary on the song. I was not surprised, but I was impressed. He's one graceful cat.)

RGD: Speaking of plucking out notes, Nils, could you tell me how you developed your unique right hand technique of playing guitar, in which you utilize a thumb pick, fingerpicking, and touch/tap harmonics?

Lofgren: Sure. When I picked up the guitar as a hobby, my brother started showing me chords, and then I took a few lessons from some great local musicians. One in particular, Bill Singer, had me learn a piece by Chet Atkins, doing The Beatles song, Can't Buy Me Love. It was months of hard work, learning to play a bassline that was static and never changing ( he hums the part to demonstrate), and while that doesn't alter rhythmically - it just moved through the chords, the different bass notes, and to pick the melody up on the higher strings, it was very difficult. One of the hardest things I ever did, and once I got to the end of the piece, I had a whole new key to the kingdom of fingerpicking that I still use to this day! To kind of keep some low grooves going while I do different rhythms with the higher notes - and to this day it is a huge part of my technique. I picked up a thumb pick one day out of a guitar case, and I didn't know any better, so I got the hang of the thumbpick down. My local players said I had to play rock and roll with a flat pick - I said, 'Look, I can't stand stinking up the joint for ten more months with a new pick, I'm gonna stay with the thumbpick. It's really more of a country thing, but I've applied it to rock and roll and harmonics, and just found a style that worked for me.

RGD: Last night, as I was doing some prep for this interview, I stumbled upon an old video clip of you jamming with Roy Buchanan, and as I watched, I noticed Roy was watching you play, and he was just smiling away. He seemed fascinated by your technique.

Lofgren: Well, I have a different perspective on that from some people, Tony. I think Roy, knowing he was my hero, realized that he had invited a 19 year old guitar player on to the stage who was so excited and over-amped that he couldn't shut up. All I did was to play hard and fast, and I was just too immature to even think, and too nervous to think, 'Oh, why don't you shut up, and let Roy play something.' Finally, near the end, I think you can see Roy just smiling at me, realizing that I don't have any maturity, and he just starts de-tuning his guitar like a sound effect - 'Well, there's no room for my licks, so let me just make some noise to accompany him, since I've only been playing rhythm.' That was a great honor, but when I watch that I just cringe, because I was just like, 'Man, you're just too young and stupid to shut up and to trade licks with Roy,' and I have to accept that. Yeah, that's right. I still do stupid things, hopefully less than I did back then, but it was still a great honor to be asked to participate with one of my heroes.

RGD: Going back to the new record, let's continue on the theme of maturity. 60 Is The New 18 is one of my favorite tunes on the record, but it sounds to me as if you're playing the role of commentator more than as the subject of the song, who seems to be having a rough go of things, am I correct?

Lofgren: I'm surprised at 60, how much hope and naivete I've still retained to survive, and that's mixed with some angst, fear, and anxiety about my planet. There's this vision when you're a child that when somebody makes it to 60, they're in a recliner watching TV, the kids are bringing the soup and drinks, and you are this revered character, when in fact, you're like a Rodney Dangerfield, and nobody gives a shit! You have to have a sense of humor about it, but the character in the song is, of course, having a much rougher time with it than I am. I took the liberty of expressing this for people that are struggling with an older age. The thing is, there's a lot of wisdom, but there's also a lot of fear and anxiety that comes with it, and you have to work really hard to temper it all - the guy in the song is not doing such a good job of it at the moment.

RGD: Another poignant moment on the record is the song, I Miss You Ray - dedicated to Ray Charles, but it also has become a tribute to your friend and bandmate Clarence Clemons. You've been including mention of the big man in  the lyrics at your recent solo shows. Had you written this tune before, or after the death of Mr. Clemons?

Lofgren: That was written months before Clarence passed, and again, in keeping with some passionate topics. Ray Charles was one of my heroes, and it was a rough loss a couple of years back, so I used it as a metaphor for that. If you stick around long enough, you start having to say goodbye to family and friends, and it's really tough. You have to realize, and I hope that some of us have family and friends left, that life can be grand, but you really have to once again temper the two. I used the loss of Ray as a metaphor for that, and certainly the great loss of losing my friend Clarence - I've been singing, 'I miss you, C,' in my live shows and unfortunately it's a very appropriate song in which to tailor the lyrics that way.

RGD: Old School features performances by three of the greatest vocalists in history, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Lou Gramm (ex-Foreigner), and Paul Rodgers. You still sing the lead on the songs, but they contribute tremendously. How did you go about arranging their parts, and putting the songs on which they sang together? 

Lofgren: Sam Moore and I, we sang together here in the studio in Arizona, which was one of the highlights of my performing career as a singer. Paul and Lou did their own tracks, and I was so honored that they were game to do it. What I did was just send them the music - I sent them some ideas and encouraged them to come up with anything they would hear that would be different than my ideas. I can't sing like either one of them, so fortunately, they did just that. They took some of the groundwork of what I may have initially heard - coming and going, they came up with their own ideas in addition to mine, they crafted parts they were comfortable with, and the end result, to me, was just beautiful. I was thrilled and honored to have the help of three great singers like that, and they are good friends - they were very open to helping me, and I could call them up directly and ask for their help with my project. It really speaks volumes about the classy people they are, and they are three of the greatest singers of all time. It even surprised me when I got the tracks back, but that's what you want, isn't it?

RGD: That is so cool. So, with the record now out, what does 2012 hold in store for you, Nils? More shows to promote the album? (This interview was conducted before today's announcement of shows this summer by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band)

Lofgren: Greg Varlotta and I have two dates booked in February, on the 18th and 19th at The Birchmere Theater in Alexandria, Virginia. In the next few weeks I'll see about booking some more work - we'll get out next year and do our own shows wherever we can, and try to spread the word about my new record and keep playing.

RGD: Nils, it's a great record, and I'll do what I can to help you spread the word - thanks for making such a wonderful album.

Lofgren: Hey, thank you so much, man. I'm really very thrilled that you feel that way - I'm proud of the record, so it's heartening to hear that. It's great when what you're trying to do gets through. I appreciate your letting people know about it, because that's what I'll be doing for the next year!

RGD: Hey Nils, just one more thing before I let you go. What with you being right there in Scottsdale, why on Earth has Fender not yet done a Nils Lofgren signature Stratocaster?

Lofgren: You know what? They are always so very helpful. The Fender plant is just up the road from me, and they are all really, really nice guys, but that's a lot of bureaucracy and politics, and I'm not here to twist anyone's arm! If they want me to do it, I'd be happy to, but I'm not into....I'm into writing the next song and figuring out my next gig, but I would do that when they felt it was appropriate. All right, man, thanks a lot, and take care, Tony.

Nils Lofgren - dreaming big, working hard, and staying humble....

Much thanks to Nils and Jeff Allbright at The Allbright Entertainment Group.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Layla Zoe - Sleep Little Girl - Five Big Stars

I spent a few minutes trying to give this piece a clever title. I kicked around Whole Lotta Layla, then I considered The Autobiography of a Blues Singer, but then I decided to get the hell out of the way, and let the record speak for itself.

Sleep Little Girl is a firestorm of a record - the sixth solo release by the self-titled firegirl, and one that will greatly increase the Canadian singer's already international fanbase. Zoe is joined by German blues guitarist Henrik Freischlader, who not only composed all the music, but also played almost all of the instruments, save for the song Let's Get Crazy, which has bass and organ supplied by Moritz Fuhrhop.

I'd been listening to this record almost constantly for two days, and being very impressed by the cohesion of the band, the first question I asked Layla was who was in the band. I about fell out of my seat when she told me that Freischlader has played them all himself. The man is amazing - from the slinky groove of Give It To Me, to the high octane Zep-a-like stomper Rock and Roll Guitar Man, Henrik is world class on every instrument, and you would never know it was a one man show were you not told.

It is to Layla Zoe's everlasting credit that Henrik's performance is not the album's strongest point, for as brilliant as the one man band may be, it's clearly the sultry songstress's album. Everything I've ever read about her included the inevitable comparisons to Janis Joplin, and while that's rather obvious, she is a serious student of music of all types, and her stylings far surpass any sense of mere imitation. I asked about influences, and as I had imagined, she gave me a very impressive list.

"I'm really a guitar girl!" she laughed, "I listen mostly to artists like Roy Buchanan, Frank Zappa, and Peter Green, but I'm quite sure that Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Susan Tedeschi, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Eva Cassidy, and Joni Mitchell all had an influence on my vocal stylings."

Sleep Little Girl is full of autobiographical musings. Zoe wears her heart firmly on her sleeve, and you can tell by listening that she doesn't have to look far for inspiration. She reaches deep, and tells deep truths. She doesn't spare herself, or her audience - this is the blues, and this is how they were meant to be sung.

Layla said, "Pretty much all of this album comes from personal experiences - my observations on current and past experiences. Sleep Little Girl is a lullaby to myself, as I suffer from mild to extreme insomnia on the road sometimes. Singing My Blues - a true belief that I will be sing the blues until the day i die. Black Oil is about my true belief that the world was coming to an end during the news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Rock and Roll Guitar Man, well, that's about a guitar player I fell in love with, and so on and so forth..."

Zoe may be the consummate blues singer, but there's a huge dose of rock and roll strewn across this platter, and her melodic abilities and expressive phrasing imply that there was a healthy dose of Robert Plant next to her turntable somewhere down the road. Freischlader's tunes are seldom twelve bar basics - he's a sophisticated composer who covers an amazing amount of stylistic territory, yet manages to keep it between the ditches, and the album never sounds anything but cohesive.

Zoe described the process of their collaboration as such: "I had written many lyrics and poems, as I write often. Henrik gave me demos of a bunch of music he had written. I took the songs I liked from the demos, added melodies with my voice, and out of my words to the songs I thought best suited the lyrics. It was a very organic thing - it was not thought out. It just happened that these were my favorite pieces of music he had written, and my words seemed to fit perfectly! We both had a part in the sound and the feel of the record. Working with him was so natural, it really felt as if it were meant to be."

That it does, indeed. In fact, so much so that her saying that this collaboration was meant to be almost seems an understatement. The music is married to the words in a way you seldom see, as if the moods of the melodies somehow existed only to serve these songs. It sounds like a band that has been working together for years, not like a paste up Pro Tools job. Made with love by a couple of pros at the tops of their games.

I've Been Down is a thick slice of proto-metallic/blues the likes of which Beck and Page were producing in the late 60s. As muscular as Freischlader's backing track is, it's Zoe who nails you up against the wall with a wail that harkens the very gods of blues rock. An auspicious beginning, which primes the pump and revs up the record. For a fellow known primarily as a lava hot guitarist, Henrik Freischlader's bass playing is as good as anyone you'd care to hear.

Straight away from the heavy rock onslaught of the opener, Give It To Me brings a fancy, funky strut that features fatback drums, skronky wah'd guitars, and a rubber band bass line that makes dancing an impossibility. This is as sexy as a song can get - Layla Zoe makes no bones about the mission she's on - she's not begging for it, she's demanding it. And most likely getting it. Her vocal power will knock you out of your seat.

Shimmering tremolo guitars against a very loose, open rhythm track makes Singing My Blues sound like it was constructed for a David Lynch soundtrack - very atmospheric and heady. Zoe's phrasing is sophisticated as the track, and when she goes for the low notes, you will swoon right along with her. Freischlader's guitar solo is a textural playground that suggests there's little in the lexicon that he's not absorbed. A primer for any want to be soul singing sister, this is a proud proclamation of Layla Zoe's mission statement.

Let's Get Crazy is the closest the record comes to the heart of the blues, as Henrik is joined by Moritz Fuhrhop, who plays some soulful Hammond organ and some nice walking bass. Zoe's vocal acrobatics save this one from being a bit predictable, and she delivers a sizzling performance.

I'm guessing that if you stripped Layla Zoe's incredible vocals off of these tunes, you'd still have a helluva record, and you may even get the gist of the titles without the words. Black Oil is another cinematic trip down soundtrack lane, as the chanteuse solemnly sings her hymn of pain, and black rain that is sure to follow the tragedy of the BP oil spill. This song speaks to one specific situation, but also covers the ground of a multitude of sins perpetrated against Mother Earth by ruthless profiteers. Henrik Freischlader milks this tune for every drop of emotion he can muster - it lasts over nine minutes, and you're still sorry to hear it end. If this song had come out in 1971 instead of 2011, the Layla Zoe would be the name of a jet airliner.

Another Bonham-esque piece of drumming rings in Pull Yourself Together, and yet as big and blustery as the arrangement is, it's still Zoe who commands the ship from the bridge. As a guitarist, the German six stringer is incendiary - pulling every bend, slur, and run he has in his vocabulary out on this one. His solo is a blinder, and it's very clear that Layla gave him full reign to ride - I hear a lot of blues band leaders keeping their sidemen on leashes, and it's a thrill to hear when someone is given license to strut his stuff.

I Hope She Loves You Like I Do would have been a huge soul single in the late 60s, and while it offers no surprises, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and the performances keep it from bogging down in familiarity. My least favorite song on the album, but it's still damned good. 

A modulating bass line and some shimmering, chorused guitars gently introduce Hippy Chick, and Zoe is at her autobiographical best as she lays out her mantras of freedom. The blues always wears a little psychedelia well, and this waves its freak flag high, and proud. This makes me miss Free, back when Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser were still seeing eye to eye, and Rodgers was not yet seeking bad company. Feisty redhead? Yeah, Zoe describes herself better than we ever could - she knows herself and has no shyness, hesitation, or compunction about spelling it out. 

Rock and Roll Guitar Man delivers the big rock in spades, as super saturated pentatonic guitar licks, a loping bass line, laid back beat, and a singer barely tethered to this planet take this one to the time of Led Zeppelin's first tours of America. Zoe and Freischlader joust from beginning to end, as each seems able to take it as high as it needs to go. This one will have audiences going wild this month as the pair cross Germany on their Fall tour. This is great rock and roll, and boy do we need it. 

After the extreme onslaught of Rock and Roll Guitar Man, it's time to relax and ride this record off to the stables, and Zoe does it with a proper lullaby. The album's title song is a gentle good night - Layla can purr as well as she can roar, and accompanied by only an Appalachian acoustic guitar track, she brings us down gently, and bids us good night.

Sleep Little Girl is one of the finest rock and roll records I've heard all year - it's also one of the finest blues records I've heard this year. No matter how you slice it, it is the best record Layla Zoe has yet delivered, and if it doesn't make her a big star, well then, there's little right in the world. I asked her how she felt about the record, and her plans for 2012.

She said, "I plan to keep gigging, and promoting the heck out of Sleep Little Girl, as I personally feel it is the best thing I've ever done. I'm very excited to share it with as many music lovers as possible. I hope to get over to America at some point, and I believe I will. The US is hard to cross into for musicians, with the border and the small money to be made in clubs if you're name is unknown. I'm just waiting for the right time and opportunity. Until then, I'm mostly focused on Canada, and parts of Europe. Someone contacted me online for a German gig in 2009. I have been there ever since - they have a great blues scene, and they really appreciate what I am doing. I met Henrik at that first gig in 2009, he was hired to be my back up band. The rest is history.

"I was struggling so much to survive when I was sixteen years old. I don't think I would have believed then that I would be here now. I would not have believed it"

I'd like to thank Layla for answering my questions before heading out for a month long tour of Germany - she is a trooper.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nils Lofgren - Old School

"Dream big, work hard, stay humble." Nils Lofgren.

As I peruse the public relations blurbs, and early reviews, I'm reading a lot about Nils Lofgren's new release, Old School, and while everyone is talking edgy anger, and vitriol, I don't see it. What I do see is a consummate song stylist who is looking at a couple of rough years and singing some world weary tunes in a very hopeful voice. Lofgren is in great voice, his guitar playing is as jaw droppingly brilliant as ever, but it's his songwriting that has drawn me deeply into this record. This is a great record that will stay in your head through many listenings. It hasn't been off my screen for a week, and it's still growing on me.

Lofgren is coming through a difficult double hip replacement just three years ago, and the deaths of longtime E Street Band members, Clarence Clemons, and Danny Federici. He's also had enough time off of the road to take a long look at the tough shape our country is in. He may be reflective, and at times edgy, but as I listen to this disc, I hear tremendous resilience and hope in his voice and in his melodies.

Conceived and recorded in his home studio, this record sounds great and I was surprised to hear that Lofgren recorded it mostly live, without a lot of overdubs or layering. Years of live performance have honed the singer/guitarist's skills. The guitar work on Old School is nothing short of brilliant - he somehow manages to fill every nook and cranny with lyrical, and tasty forays that never sound forced, or self indulgent. It's no small wonder that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have kept Lofgren employed for over forty years.

Lofgren kicks it off with the title tune, and Old School is a great way to start - Lofgren's state of the union message. Greasy, slip sliding guitars strut from front to back, and some killer horns keep things moving as Lofgren is joined by ex-Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm on the first chorus and the remainder of the song. Lofgren proclaims, "Oh no, ain't no old school anymore," but I beg to differ. This is very old school, and it flat out rocks - it reminds me of the days when Aerosmith still had their groove.

60 Is The New 18 sees Lofgren waxing on the inelegance of growing old without grace. I suspect that Nils is telling this tale as a wry observer more than anything autobiographical here. Sonically, this sounds like a lo-fi dub take on the 80s school of intelligent and melodic guitar pop as practiced by The Police, or The Fixx. This should have a whole generation of indie rockers realizing that homegrown, handmade records needn't sound that way. Lofgren and his band sound like they spent ages working up these arrangements, but they are mostly live basic tracks, some guitar overdubs, and a few vocal fixes. The instrumental breakdown sounds like the love child of Andy Summers, and Billy Gibbons - it will have you scratching your head, and wondering where such brilliance can be bought.

Paying tribute to the voice of Ray Charles, I Miss You, Ray is a song that you know is a classic the minute you hear the first notes (think James Taylor's Fire and Rain). Nils Lofgren's guitar playing is as tremendously identifiable as ever - his touch and tone are sublime, whether he is playing electric, or as on this tune, acoustic. The rolling, laconic notes remind me of many Paul McCartney classics, as the moment you hear them, their intent and meaning are abundantly clear. As a vocalist, Lofgren is in fantastic form - his smoky resonance is endearing, as if a friend was singing to you in your living room.

It turns out that during all those years of incendiary guitar solos, and trampoline flips, Lofgren was listening very closely to the wordplay of his notably poetic ex-employers. Throughout this entire record, Lofgren assumes the position of wise bard, writing lyrics that are heart felt and compelling. Love Stumbles On is a look back over a life of broken dreams and hearts, yet love soldiers on bravely, and one never gets the notion that Lofgren is anything but hopeful.

Amy Joan Blues kicks the energy up  a notch - it's a cajun-esque romp that features one of the greatest voices to ever grace rock and roll, Paul Rodgers. Throwing lines casually back and forth, Lofgren and Rodgers sound like they've been singing together all their lives - a couple of old pros just doing what they do. Lofgren plays some amazing slide guitar from beginning to end and never seems to repeat the same lick twice.This is a somewhat standard piece of roots rock that is tremendously elevated by some superb performances.

Nils has been featuring Irish Angel in his solo shows for years, and has now recorded what will be the definitive version of the Bruce McCabe written ballad. Maybe one of the best ballads you've never heard, it's a tearjerker that has Lofgren lamenting that he'll have two drinks, one to forget, and one to remember his Irish angel. Beautifully played and sang, this one will stay on your mind long after listening.

Rock and roll Hall of Fame inductee Sam Moore (Sam and Dave) joins Lofgren on the autobiographical Ain't Too Many of Us Left. This makes me wish that somewhere along the line the six stringer had served as musical director for Bob Dylan. A very deceptive, and Stonesy rhythm sounds simple until you listen close and hear the interplay going on between the band on this cut. Yeah, they're old school as hell, and razor sharp, as Lofgren bemoans too much B-ball, too many flips, and artificial hips, all the while noting along with Moore that there ain't too many of us left.

If I had to pick one word to describe this album, I'd say that that word would have to be soulful. When Lofgren sings, "you were mine, when you were mine," it evokes memories of country ballads, haunting loss, and graceful resignation. Words sung by a less skilled vocalist could sound trite, but when Nils sings them you don't doubt that they are straight from the heart. This is another song that has a subtly beautiful arrangement with some nice synth pads, and Lofgren's beautiful acoustic guitar fills.

It takes Lofgren nine songs to finally uncork one that will have you saying, oh yeah, he has played with Springsteen for a quarter of a century. Straight Jersey shore rock with an upfront organ and a loping guitar line, Just Because You Love Me is a heartfelt paean from a man to his wife. This is a cut that lets you far enough into the artist's world to know that the hope he conveys in his voice is well placed.

Dream Big unfolds against sample laden electronic rhythms, and some sweet Philadelphia soul strings that keep getting cooler, and cooler as Lofgren lays down an impassioned rap that contains the most important message I've heard in a song for a very long time. This is street music circa 2011. With lines like, "love like a work of art," this song is an instruction manual on how one must live in perilous times. The angst comes flying out when Nils straps on his '61 Strat and knocks down walls with a stunning solo that is half emotional outburst and half technical wizardry - Lofgren's style is completely unique. His sound is tailor made and handcrafted.

Another heart on his sleeve ballad follows, with Let Her Get Away. It tells the tale of a man who just can't find the way to let go of a lost love. Lofgren's gentle, wispy acoustic guitar is the perfect accompaniment for the song, as Nils describes what dooms him to lose all love subsequent to losing the one he let get away. A beautiful prayer of contemplative resignation.

After evoking the spirit of Neil Young with a tasty bit of guitar squawk in the intro of Why Me, Lofgren is again examining his psyche as he wonders if there is "any hope in my catastrophe." I'm guessing that anyone who gives this a listen will be able to relate to this on many levels. Incredibly personal, but also universal, Nils's lyrics sing to and for every man.

Nils Lofgren's legend is based on guitar histrionics, vaulting into somersaults off of drum risers, being a dependable sideman, and occasional solo artist. Old School may be his most well realized solo foray, and is a marvelous album for our times, as well as his - the pains and woes he sings of are those of all of us in these turbulent times, but it is his sense of hope and perseverance that has kept me listening to this record repeatedly, and digging it more with each subsequent listening.

Old School is one of the finest records I have heard this year, and it's been a pretty good year. A great album for our times - it is a bit sad and reflective, but willing to do the work to make things right.

You should buy this record today.