An Evening with The Nils Lofgren Acoustic Duo
The Space at Westbury
September 21, 2018
It was an evening of stories, humor and above all else wonderful music when Nils Lofgren and his cohort in crime, Greg Varlotta, brought the Acoustic Duo tour to Westbury, NY. Lofgren, at 67 years of age, is celebrating his 50th year as a professional musician. That’s right, at 17, Lofgren turned pro. He was a prodigy. At 19-years-old, Lofgren, the legendary, world renowned singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (as a member of the E Street Band), has, since 1970, been a member of Crazy Horse (1970-1971; 1973; 2018-present), the founder/frontman of the band Grin (1971-1974), a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band since 1984 and a critically acclaimed solo artist. The man is also an icon.
On a pleasant Friday evening in late September, Lofgren and Varlotta touched down at The Space. The intimate and historic venue first opened as the Westbury Movie Theater in 1927. The theater thrived as a single screen venue through the 1970s. Eventually, it was remodeled into a double screen theater. Sadly as time progressed, movie-goers decreased and the theater was forced to close its doors. The location was saved from demolition by Cyrus Hakakian and his partners. Hakakian decided that he and his ownership group would renovate and preserve the theater. The idea was and is to accommodate all aspects of contemporary entertainment. The consortium installed state of the art lighting and sound systems. The venue now has flexible seating plans and hosts numerous concerts, special events, parties and meetings.
At slightly after 8:15pm, Lofgren appeared on stage with Varlotta, a virtuoso performer who plays a number of instruments. The stage was sparse, featuring a simple set up of a small keyboard, a guitar or two propped up on stands and a bank of foot pedals.
Lofgren immediately made those in the audience feel at home—almost as if they had been invited into his living room. He spoke and performed with a breezy ease and comfort that only someone with such a grand history experience can. Lofgren took the crowd on a tour of his career. He told stories and explained the genesis of the song and what was happening in his career, life and the world when the song in question was recorded.
With 50 years of material to choose from, it is easy to pick some songs, but harder to choose some others. Lofgren’s two and a half hour set began with “Wonderland,” and also included “Code of The Road” (which he explained hadn’t been done in a while) and “Black Books” which was featured during the second season of The Sopranos.
“Walking Nerve” featured Varlotta on trumpet. The song, Lofgren said, “…is usually dedicated to my son but tonight it’s for anyone in the audience over 50.” “Girl In Motion” was dedicated to his wife Amy who was not present on this evening as she was flying back to their home. Amy was referenced regularly by Lofgren as the person who constantly reminds him to hydrate. The crowd picked up on this and each time the singer paused to drink from his water bottle, audience members in unison chimed-in by shouting, “Hydrate!”
The show featured plenty of humorous anecdotes. Lofgren told a story about his past and how when he drank alcohol he’d invariably have an allergic reaction that caused him to break out in handcuffs. Now, at 67, he has stated that he only drinks water “for hydration.” Later in the evening, when switching from one guitar to another chuckled when he stated, “Look at all these pedals…don’t ask me what they do...red ones, yellow ones, orange ones...”
Lofgren truly is a musical virtuoso. He doesn’t play guitar in the “normal” way that many other players do. He uses a thumb pic which allows him to pick at the strings with his fingers while strumming with his thumb. He will occasionally strum with the thumb pic which tapping out a beat with his other fingers on the body of his guitar. He plays with such a deceptive ease. His fingers fly and the sounds produced are beautiful. It is somewhat reminiscent of Jeff Beck who plucks and coaxes songs of out his instrument that couldn’t be produced by using traditional playing.
Lofgren also told a story about playing accordion as a child and winning a polka competition. He then explained how as the piano player on “Southern Man,” he convinced Neil Young to make a change in the second part of the song to include a polka-like progression. After that, his producer, David Briggs, encouraged him to write more on the piano. Lofgren explained that the next song “Believe,” which was recorded by Grin, came as a result of that suggestion.
Other highlights included: the Carole King song “Goin’ Back,” “Too Many Miles” (which opened with Lofgren playing a standup harp and Varlotta on electric piano) and “Like Rain” categorized by Lofgren as “one of the first songs I wrote for Grin when I was 17.” The audience members were clearly surprised when Lofgren took a moment to change his shoes. They were even more surprised by his choice of new footwear. Lofgren sat at a stool and changed into tap shoes. He then grabbed his acoustic guitar and played “I Came To Dance.” After a flabbergasted audience responded with a standing ovation, Lofgren and Varlotta closed the main set with “No Mercy.”
After a very short break during which Lofgren said with a laugh, that he “had to hydrate,’ he announced, “Thank you! We’re gonna do a few more numbers for you. Now, I gotta change outta my goddamn tap shoes.”
The encores were nothing short of eclectic. Lofgren donned his accordion for the classical piece “Flight if the Bumble Bee” which he said that he played the year he won the accordion competition when he was a kid. The version he played was superb and nothing short of stunning. Following the classical tune, he announced, “We’re going to turn it up to 11 and have a little fun here.” Lofgren then played electric guitar on “Shine Silently” accompanied by Varlotta on guitar and a nice pre-recorded drum track. At the end of the song, Lofgren and Varlotta stepped to the front of the stage, waved and bowed. Lofgren said, “You’ve been fabulous, god bless you all. Come see us again!” With that they were gone.
When you have a career as lengthy as Lofgren’s, it is impossible to play everything that fans hope for. Some audience members were lamenting the fact that he didn’t play “Valentine,” "Back It Up,” “Keith Don't Go” or “Secrets In The Street.” Others, however, were overheard saying, “I can’t believe that he played…that’s one of my favorites.”
When last seen, the vast majority of those in attendance were ecstatic and to say the least thrilled. The smiles on their faces as they waited for Lofgren to appear at the merchandise table said it all.
Photos by Christine Connallon