He is most widely known as a longtime guitarist with the E Street Band, but long before he became one of Bruce Springsteen’s trusted right-hand men, Nils Lofgren had a vast and productive recording career of his own.
Lofgren’s discography goes back to 1971, when he released the first of three albums by the band Grin, which he started in 1968. By the time he joined the E Street Band in 1984, Lofgren had released 10 solo albums. He has since released a dozen more, but along the way, his music has become, as he put it, “extinct.”
“I’d been calling the record companies for decades, trying to get my old out-of-print music released,” Lofgren told The Star during a recent phone interview from his Arizona home. “And they always said no.”
But in 2012, Fantasy Records offered Lofgren the chance not only to exhume music from his catalog, but also to compile it in a comprehensive box set. He spent about two years working on it, and in June 2014, “Face the Music” saw the light of day.
“It was extraordinary,” Lofgren said. “The scope of it kind of blew me away.”
The collection comprises 169 tracks on nine CDs, plus a DVD. It also includes a 136-page book of commentary and personal history from Lofgren, dozens of photographs that go back to his teens, and testimonials from the dozens of musicians Lofgren has collaborated with, including Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. His wife, Amy, was the book’s art and graphics director.
For Lofgren, it was an exercise that led to surprises and unexpected discoveries.
“They let me handpick the best of basically 48 years of recording,” he said. “I dug through hundreds of basement tapes and found 40 bonus tracks and rarities and B-sides that had never been released and I was proud of and wanted people to hear.
“It was really an amazing (experience) for someone who’s had no record deal in 20 years and most of my music is extinct and out of print. My goal was (for listeners) to not get off the couch and lift the needle and to have all 50 years play evenly and enjoy it.
“I got plenty of feedback from people, but they all ultimately deferred to me. I’d never really listened to my music like that. I’d forgotten lots of stuff. To go through hundreds and hundreds of tracks and pick out the best was a really beautiful thing.”
Lofgren has a busy solo career going alongside his commitments to the E Street Band. His duo recently had to postpone some shows after Springsteen extended his River Tour, which stops by the Sprint Center on Thursday. At his website, NilsLofgren.com, he offers, among other things, guitar lessons to beginning and intermediate students. He has also begun work on a solo album, though he has no expectations about a label deal.
“There really aren’t any good record deals out there, not for a 64-year-old musician with no hit records,” he said. “So I have this grassroots business with Amy. She’s a professional cook by trade, but she designs my T-shirts and posters and has a lot of fresh opinions.
“There are no lawyers or accountants or bureaucracy. Thanks to technology, I can share music and teach guitar to people all over the globe.”
The Springsteen tour has eight more U.S. shows in April. In mid-May it heads to Europe for a string of more than two dozen shows that ends July 23. Even after more than 30 years with the band, Lofgren said the thrill of playing three-hour shows before arena and stadium crowds never dims, even with this tour, which features “The River” album every night in its entirety.
Lofgren’s relationship with the album precedes his history in the band.
“I bumped into Bruce at the Sunset Marquis (in Los Angeles) before it became a famous hotel in 1980,” he said. “I’d been living there since 1969. Bruce happened to be on the way to hear the final mix of ‘The River’ album, and he invited me to tag along. So I did. I loved how they got the sizzle and electricity of the live shows into the groove.”
Springsteen’s previous show in Kansas City was in November 2012, when he toured with a horn section and backup singers — nine extra performers. For this tour, it’s just the core group.
“I miss the big band,” Lofgren said. “I love playing inside a horn section and with great singers. It was like a rock/soul choir. I miss that. But with the core band, there’s a lot of space and breathing room and for ‘The River’ album, that’s more appropriate. I totally get why it’s stripped down.”
When “The River” tour ends or takes a long pause, Lofgren will return to his live shows, which will include some of the songs he exhumed for “Face the Music.” In the meantime, he will revel in working for a band leader who inspires those who perform with him to appreciate the glory of making music for a living.
“It’s a real blessing as a performer to be in a band of this caliber and go out every night and do something special,” he said. “Something happens at these shows that doesn’t happen anywhere else. And for that, after all these years, I have a deeper focus, appreciation and gratitude. We’re all grateful for it.”
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform Thursday night at the Sprint Center. Tickets are $55 to $150; availability is limited. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.