Nils Lofgren Reflects on Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” Tour

The guitarist also tells us the inspiration behind Crazy Horse's new record

April 19, 2023 6:43 am
Nils Lofgren
Nils Lofgren
Kevin Winter

Being in not one but two legendary bands can be time-consuming, to say the least. But when the pandemic hit, Nils Lofgren suddenly found himself stuck at home like the rest of us, unable to tour with Crazy Horse or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. To keep in touch and stay busy, he and his Crazy Horse bandmates — Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and of course, Neil Young — spent their time in lockdown exchanging song ideas they’d each crafted on their own at home and giving one other feedback.

Eventually, those songs became All Roads Lead Home, the compilation record (credited to “Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young”) released last month. Lofgren, Molina and Talbot each contributed three tracks to the album, recorded at home during the pandemic, while Young’s contribution is a live solo version of “Song of the Seasons,” off his 2021 effort with the group, Barn.

And All Roads Lead Home isn’t the multi-instrumentalist’s only recent project with Young: Last Friday (April 14), saw the release of Somewhere Under the Rainbow, part of Young’s Original Bootleg Series. Recorded in November 1973 at London’s Rainbow Theater with the Santa Monica Flyers — Lofgren on guitar and accordion, Talbot on bass, Molina on drums and Ben Keith on pedal steel — it’s an essential glimpse at Young’s legendary Tonight’s the Night tour.

We caught up with Lofgren, who is currently on the road with Springsteen, to hear his memories of playing that show 50 years ago and get a few details about his forthcoming solo album.

InsideHook: Could you walk me through how All Roads Lead Home came to be and what the inspiration for it was?

Nils Lofgren: Well, of course, the pandemic shut us all down for a long time, and past the panic and fears and new way of a strange life we all were dealing with. Billy and Ralphie and I and Neil would stay in touch, but Billy and Ralphie were working on a project where each of them were making a record of their own songs, and they were considering putting out a double album together. Ralphie was short a couple songs. Well, initially — we go back 53 years as friends and bandmates, so it’s great to have friends like that still around. Ralphie said, “Hey, I need a song from you.” I was working on a solo album of my own anyway, so I was in the writing mode, just working at home. My wife, Amy, was taking great care of us all and looking after me, letting me get into my home studio and do something professional ’cause I couldn’t hit the road ’cause of COVID. Ralphie asked me to write a song and contribute it, and I said, “Sure, let me try to get that done for you.” And then he called and said, “Actually, I need three songs or four.” I said, “Ralphie, that’s a lot.”

That dialogue led into Ralphie asking Neil for a bonus track, which Neil gave us. And Neil had a good idea. He said, “Well, look, instead of doing a double album that’s just such a giant, almost unwieldy project, especially if you like vinyl,” which we all insist on doing vinyl because that’s the world we grew up in. And he had the idea, he said, “Why don’t you just take the cream of the crop? Take your best three songs, take my extra track, and do a 10-song single vinyl, and just take the very best of what you got and let that be the record.” And that’s where we headed. Even though it was long-distance, we were all communicating, and a much larger, more difficult project to see to finish, Neil made it a lot more concise. And it was fun for all of us to go, “Oh, why don’t I just… ” “What are my best three songs?” And then I’d listen to a lot of theirs. I’d give them my opinions, vice versa and we came up with the album. Billy came up with the title All Roads Lead Home, which I thought was beautiful ’cause even though we were trying to stay safe in our little home bubbles, we were being creative as best we could without hitting the road, and that led to having more songs than we needed for a single album. We picked the best of them and made the compilation.

Well, you sort of touched on this a little bit, but how did you maintain that sense of collaboration when you were recording it separately? Did you feel like you had to sort of go out of your way to give each other feedback on everything?

Not really. It was just kind of natural ’cause we spent so much time on so many projects over the last half a century that since we were putting a compilation together, it was fun to send, for instance, rough mixes of my ideas. Billy would send me his entire 10, 12 songs he had. Ralphie would do the same, just for feedback. We might disagree, but at least you have somebody you trust, that you’ve been in a band with forever, to say, “Hey, here’s my favorites and why.” And then they might go, “Well, what do you think of these two?” I say, “Well, let me go back and listen to them.” And then I go, “Well, here’s what I think of those two.” It was just a long-distance collaboration to involve each other, even though we weren’t in the room together, emotionally with each other’s selections and where they were headed. Maybe make some suggestions about production or harmonies or, just in general, get feedback from people you trust.

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I know that your brother Tommy sang on two of your tracks. How did that come to be and what was it like being able to record with him?

That was a beautiful accident. I’m living in Scottsdale, Arizona with my fabulous wife, Amy. And Tommy — fortunately, I come from an incredible family. My mom and dad, we miss them, but they were amazing parents. I’ve got three younger brothers, all of them salt of the earth, beautiful people and fathers. Tommy was out for a visit, and I happened to be working on these songs for Ralphie. And I thought, “Wow, why don’t I see if… ” Tommy was there to relax and visit me and Amy. They both love each other. But I said, “Tom, do you mind singing on some songs I’m working on for this Crazy Horse compilation?” And he said, “No, I’d love to.” Me and Tommy go way back. He was my first guitar teacher in the mid-’60s when I started getting away from the classical accordion which I’d studied since I was five years old. And then, of course, when my band Grin, we really needed a fourth member, we somehow talked my mom and dad into letting Tom leave school a year early but get his GED. So he had a diploma and joined Grin and hit the road with us in the early ’70s. So, no finer musician or friend to play with, and Tommy just happened to be visiting, so it was a beautiful accident that he was out there and sang for me, and those were his ideas and they sounded great and really grateful to have him on them.

What was it like, the decision-making process of trying to figure out what your three songs would be, going back through your notebooks and looking for ideas?

Yeah. Initially Ralphie asked for a song and I thought, well, I can probably handle that as I’m working on a solo record. And I already had my solo group of songs as a set piece, so I didn’t wanna break that up. So when he called back and said, “Hey, I need more,” I went to my old notebooks. I got a stack of them. Sometimes lyrics you wrote will ring a bell years later. And old demos, I had some old DATs of really kind of primitive demos from way back. But you go through the titles, and then you see some titles, you go, “Well, let me listen to that.” And that’s how I found the lyric to “You Will Never Know.” I don’t even know what the music was, but I thought, “Oh yeah, remember this lyric? I always wanted to do something with that.” So I was excited about that, and I started from scratch and wrote the music and the melody on the spot just to update the whole thing. But I just love the sentiment of somebody, in this case me, falling in love with a girl and kind of [writing] a letter to the guy who was a terrible boyfriend and abused her. Like, “Hey, now she’s got someone who loves her and cares about her, and you’ll never know about it.” And it was just kind of a strange sentiment I liked, and I wrote the music on the spot. And then I found the old “Go With Me” demo, it’s a very innocent love song from way back, and I thought I’d do that from scratch ’cause I always loved the tune.

And way back, I think in the ’90s, Kevin McCormick, amazing producer and bass player who I continue to work with and a dear friend, he and I did a demo in an apartment I had in LA where I lived for so long on “Fill My Cup,” with me on a big acoustic 12-string and him playing this great bass part. And I took that and built around it and produced around it ’cause it always had a great vibe and feel and I’d never gotten that on a record. So that’s kind of how my three came about. And meanwhile, Billy and Ralphie were at home recording and sending me their ideas and I was happy to give them feedback ’cause getting a fresh perspective from somebody you trust is always useful.

You mentioned you’ve got your solo record as well in the works. What can you tell me about that so far?

Well, it’s gonna be out this summer, doing the final stages. So there’s not a whole lot more to say except I got some great special guests on it. And it was me deciding — because I loved to perform and I loved being home, but after a while Amy runs the whole place, and she’s like a professional cook. She keeps us all healthy and safe and has this gorgeous earthy 1930s adobe home property that she’s turned into a botanical garden. We got our dogs, just like a dog park. And I was just kind of a house boy. I mean, I take out the trash, I’d do this, I take a dog to a vet, but I couldn’t really… She’s running the show, and after a while I’m like, “Geez, it would be nice to go out and sing and play for people and pay a few bills,” which I didn’t do for three and a half years.

And even though I love being home, it kind of hurt me a bit. I’d go out to my garage studio and put on Muddy Waters or BB King or Howlin’ Wolf and I’d play blues guitar for 20, 30 minutes just to play music. But after a while I was like, “Man, what can I do that’s professional?” ‘Cause usually being on the road is where I kind of hone my ideas and put more time in. But I thought, “Why don’t you just challenge yourself, since there’s no end in sight to this pandemic, to write an album, write whatever comes out, be honest and just share it and no matter what you think about it, make it and share it.” So that was kind of a new theme, instead of writing 20, 30 songs, just come up with 10 songs you like and share it with people. And that’s how that journey continued. And probably in another month or so I’ll be ready to get into it a little deeper and we’ll have it out sometime this summer.

And you’ve also got the archival release, Somewhere Under the Rainbow, coming out. What do you remember about playing that show?

Oh my Lord. I remember that whole chapter was insane for me. When they sent me the tape and said, “Neil found someone that snuck in a good recorder, and this is coming out,” when they sent me the music, I listened to it four times in a row non-stop. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was so inspiring and visceral because back then — I went out, I grew up in the ’60s, I hit the road in 1968 when I was 17. I’d train all over the East Coast to see Jimi Hendrix, The Who, all these incredible bands. And I went out to LA, I met Neil Young in DC at his first tour, got to be friends with them, that relationship continued. But it was all this free love, hippie, smoke pot, sip a little Jack Daniels, make music all day and night. And it was kind of a beautiful, almost a false sense of heaven on earth, if you will, in the music industry. And then everyone started dying. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, on and on. And things took a really dark turn, and I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t think anybody was.

And Neil… You’d have to talk to him about his specifics. From my perspective, he brought us all together, said we’re going to do this Tonight’s the Night album. I call it The Wake album. It was like Bruce Berry, one of our friends and roadies, passed away and of course, top of the list, Danny Whitten, our right-hand man in Crazy Horse, who I met when I was 17, 53, 54 years ago, when I walked in on them on their first tour at The Cellar Door in Washington DC. So, here we are recording in a funky rehearsal studio in East Hollywood, doing it all live. Neil wouldn’t let us know the songs too well. He wanted an anti-production record, very raw and primitive. And then, we took it on the road, and we played this album no one had ever heard. And he stuck to his guns, and it was very avant-garde here. We nailed 16-inch glitter boots all around the piano bell. I mean, it was — our headspace was Cuervo Gold and a little Thai weed we snuck into England, and it was just, in a strange way, it really helped deal with the trauma we were in. It seemed like the music and the madness that we were in kind of healed us and gave us some comfort through the grief, and the rage that we all had about all our heroes and friends starting to drop dead around us.

So, the fact that he’s putting this out, it just blowing my mind. I still can’t stop listening to it. It’s just a beautiful piece. And a lot of times, we’d play the album front to back and people would be a little cranky and want to hear hits. They weren’t prepared for what Neil was sharing. And sometimes it’d be a little rude, and so of course, the album starts and begins with two very different versions of “Tonight’s the Night.” So, a few nights, Neil would come out at the end of the night, and just with his great sense of humor, he said, “Okay, everybody, we’re going to play something you’ve all heard before.” And the place goes wild like, “Is this going to be ‘Cinnamon Girl’? Is it going to be ‘Heart of Gold’? What beautiful hit is our master poet going to present to us?” And we played “Tonight’s the Night” again which they never heard. And it just completely knocked them down and I got a kick out of that. There’s all these other songs, like a crazy long version of “Helpless,” I’m on accordion. One of my favorite songs that I didn’t know about that I learned on the Tonight’s the Night tour, “Don’t Be Denied,” I’m on the Gold Rush upright. We call it this funky upright piano that I played on After the Gold Rush when I was 18 years old; we dragged all around Europe, and I’m playing that. I don’t know if maybe when you listen to the audience on Somewhere Under The Rainbow, they seem quite responsive. They don’t seem as agitated as a lot of the crowds are. They seem like they’re kind of getting it, kind of embracing what Neil is trying to share with them. It’s a very powerful, uneasy thing trying to process all this grief and rage at all our friends and heroes dying. So my theory is, maybe at that point in the tour, since the audiences were so receptive, Neil started playing some more familiar things as kind of a gift to them. I don’t know, that’s a question for him, but that’s my theory. But I just can’t tell you how thrilled I am that it’s coming out.

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