- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Last year, Nils Lofgren was playing gigs with Bruce Springsteen at supersized venues such as FedEx Field, which is big even by NFL standards. The marathon world tour to support “The Rising” also saw the rejuvenated E Street Band, which has showcased Mr. Lofgren for the past 20 years, make a record-setting 10-night stand at Giants Stadium. Doubtless there were repeat customers, but any way you slice it, that’s about half a million tickets.

Starting tonight, Mr. Lofgren will be making a more modest multiple-evening stand of his own — at the 500-seat Birchmere.

Fine by him. The smaller the better, in fact. The sea of cheering fans at stadiums may provide a nice spectacle, but the excitement of performing is no stronger.

“Your job is to get lost in the music and the energy of the crowd,” Mr. Lofgren says in a phone interview. “It’s easier to accomplish that in an intimate setting. The people are right on top of you.

“In a stadium show,” by contrast, “the first row is 50 yards away.”

It’s a slight exaggeration, but the point is well-taken.

Mr. Lofgren: “To me, the rush is walking out onstage with great players that you love to play with and standing in front of an audience that’s there to see you.”

For the 52-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire (let’s not forget his accordion and harp chops), the Birchmere is his Giants Stadium, the ever-welcoming venue from which to stage homecomings.

Mr. Lofgren moved to Bethesda when he was 8. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Amy, and stepson, Dylan, but Washington is where he launched his professional music career — starting with the band Grin, then branching into solo work and intermittent collaborations with Neil Young before landing the E Street slot in 1984.

“I love the area,” he says. “My family’s still here.” Speaking of whom, brothers Mike and Mark will join Mr. Lofgren for each of the three gigs. (tomorrow and Saturday nights’ shows are sold out, but tickets are still available for tonight.)

Another brother, Tom Lofgren, with whom Nils formed Grin in 1969, is otherwise booked. Longtime friends of Mr. Lofgren’s, the locally based guitarist Paul Bell and keyboardist Buck Brown, will pitch in to accompany him for the intimate, acoustic-based sets.

Mr. Lofgren sees the Birchmere gigs — at the moment, the only live performances he has planned for the year — as a new beginning for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s been years since he has played the roles of band chief and lead singer, and he’ll be the first to admit the jobs are decidedly not like riding a bike.

“I’ve really been focused on the E Street Band for the last year and a half. I’m kinda rusty,” Mr. Lofgren says. “This is getting my feet back in the water.

“I feel refreshed and excited about playing again and starting to write again,” he continues. “It’s a great excuse to get my act together again.”

There’s also the fact that he is without a record contract. Again, fine by him. Long underrated as a songwriter — check out the haunting version of “Black Books” that wound up on the soundtrack for HBO’s “The Sopranos” — Mr. Lofgren feels no pull toward what he calls “soft-porn belly pop.” (Britney, Christina — he’s talkin’ about you.)

“Apparently, they have no use for me in that genre either,” he quips.

Anyway, who would want to deal with the recording biz today, given the sorry state it’s in? Try releasing, in this twitchy environment of anti-piracy clampdown, live bootleg videos on your personal Web site, as Mr. Lofgren has done with www.nilslofgren.com. “They’d never let me put those up,” he says.

“The politics of the record industry, they’re emotionally deafening to the artist,” he adds.

A pair of his pals recently broke down his home-recording equipment from Maryland and hauled it to Scottsdale, where he’s learning anew how it all works. “I’ve just started dabbling again,” he says.

A new album in the works? Possibly.

Yet here’s what Mr. Lofgren says about the future of the E Street Band. It could apply equally to his own career: “The last five years, we’ve done two great tours. We kind of re-established ourselves. But Bruce never makes future plans; he never has.

“We’re all adults. We have families. If you don’t have to, why decide what you’re gonna be doing in 15 months?”

WHAT: Nils Lofgren at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria

WHEN: Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30.

TICKETS: $35

PHONE: 703/549-7500


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