Nils Lofgren must have, at some point in the past, registered on the periphery of my musical knowledge. While browsing the first few acts booked to appear at the newly re-opened York Barbican, I knew that I wanted to see him but didn’t quite know why. Or, for that matter, exactly who he was. A quick Google (what did we do before the internet…?) revealed that he was not only a virtuoso guitarist and singer-songwriter in his own right, but that he had also been a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (as well as playing alongside such luminaries as Neil Young and Ringo Starr). So it was that I found myself out on a Friday evening, with a completely different set of music fans, having paid what was, for me in recent years, a record amount of money to see somebody who I hardly knew anything about.
Firstly, a few words about the Barbican. During its first stint as an entertainments venue I saw quite a few reasonably big names perform there, including Lisa Stansfield (whose tour consisted of nights at the Glasgow SEC, Birmingham NEC, Wembley Arena and York Barbican – somebody somewhere knew somebody, I suspect), Big Country, Runrig, Lindisfarne, All About Eve (who were booed after giving us just a half hour set) and Mel C (twice!). Sadly, I missed seeing Robbie Williams there. I always liked the idea of having a venue of its size in York as it gave us the chance to see such names without the hassle of travelling. So, it was with no little excitement that I greeted the news that it was to re-open, with a recognised promotion company running it. While few of the currently announced acts have resonated enough for me to consider going along, I really hope that the place is successful enough to survive. While I’ve got used to paying smaller amounts to see bands play live, there are undoubtedly times when I would pay more to see bigger acts (and there is at least one local band that I can think of who would be more suited to play there than their current regular venue). Inside, the Barbican hasn’t changed much – the seats appear to be the same ones as before and look a little worn in places and what we could see of the floor in the arena didn’t seem to indicate that it had been tidied up, let alone replaced. I guess most of the refit money will have gone on the public-facing and business areas – the bar and conference rooms and a new (I think) restaurant – as well as cleaning the place out. Presumably, there’s little point in spending too much on a room that most people will only see in darkness.
Tonight was part of Nils’ “acoustic” tour, although that was a slight misnomer as he played electric guitar for a few of the songs. Appearing with just one other musician – the very versatile Greg Varlotta – meant that the stage appeared a bit sparse and under populated, with just a few speakers, a single keyboard, a couple of guitars, an electric harp and some strategically placed wicker baskets visible from the beginning. The harp quickly disappeared (with the help of a hard-working roadie who seemed to be constantly swapping instruments or re-arranging the stage) after Nils used it for an intricate opening to the first song, Too Many Miles, before changing to electric guitar and staggering around the stage while playing some extraordinary solos with Greg accompanying on the keyboard. Electric was replaced by acoustic for Everybody Wants and a different acoustic, with an incredible sound, was used for Share A Little, during which the aforementioned baskets were used as foot rests, giving us a better view of the intricacies of Lofgren’s playing. Two requests followed – solo versions of Neil Young’s Long May You Run and the much simpler Take You To The Movies Tonight. Keith Don’t Go showed even more versatility as guitar strings were gently plucked one minute and brutally punished the next. By this time I had given up counting the number of guitar changes and had no idea whether they were simply being rotated and whether the one used for You had been used before or whether there was a seemingly infinite stock in the wings. During Girls In Motion it became obvious that Nils was, at least on occasions, utilising backing tracks to provide a fuller sound. I have no problem with that – I assume it saves on touring costs and certainly doesn’t detract from the superb solos he was playing – and I think it’s the first time I’ve experienced it, at least for guitars. Greg, who had been absent since the end of the third song, returned to the stage to play trumpet during Rusty Gun, inevitably giving the song a slightly Mexican feel, then teased an almost choral sound from the keyboard for Black Books, which Nils described as a “dark country song” as he donned sunglasses to play it. Eschewing instruments altogether, Greg then made his way to a previously unnoticed board lying at the back of the stage and, during Cry Tough, proceeded to thoroughly enjoy himself while performing what can only be described as “Dad tap-dancing”, providing an unusual and hugely entertaining rhythm section which sounded a lot fuller and deeper than the usual clickety-clack sound associated with tap shoes. It was all change for Irish Angel, a lovely ballad which saw Nils take to the keyboard and Greg pick up a guitar and which was similarly followed by the lyrically superb Goin’ Back, Believe and the very radio-friendly The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet. It was then Greg’s turn in the spotlight as he played a nice guitar solo, during which Nils changed his shoes and donned a radio mike while the roadies brought back the harp, moved the board to the front of the stage and brought on a silver cane. I’m told that Be Humble started life as a simple rock and roll song, the version we got tonight, however, with Nils tapping out the percussion with both feet and cane, playing harp and guitar (with his teeth for one section) could almost be described as “epic”. With the plethora of instruments and effects, it seemed that this was to be the big finish but, when it was followed by a return to relative simplicity with Like Rain and then Greg returned to the once again repositioned board for Mud In Your Eye, which got a fair few people in the audience singing along. No Mercy brought an almost AOR sound to the set before Nils and Greg, both on guitar, gave an atmospheric opening to Because The Night (the only song I recognised in the whole set), with Greg also providing his strongest backing vocals of the evening. After two hours continual playing there was a brief departure before the guys returned for an encore consisting of I Came To Dance, with its near Honky-Tonk keyboard section and the inevitable and crowd-pleasing tap duet and, finally, the brilliant Shine Silently.
Nils may be a few days shy of his sixtieth birthday and may have undergone hip replacement surgery back in 2008, but it didn’t show tonight. Over the course of two and a quarter hours, his playing was superb, innovative, bordering on genius (at least to a non-musician like me) and with an incredible variety of styles. At one point, he played so frantically that his thumb plectrum flew across the stage, to be retrieved a few minutes later during a quieter section. While there may have been no back-flips during the performance, he staggered and spun around stage like a man half his age. The Barbican has, in the past, faced criticism for its acoustics. Tonight, however, despite a bit of hiss in the quieter parts, the vocals were as clear as you can get, showcasing a still strong voice. On top of all that, this is the first time I’ve seen a “big star” announce on stage that he would be coming out to sign autographs after the show. Chatting with and shaking the hands of everybody who approached him and showing no impatience with all those who wanted photographs, Nils belied the generic rock star image and delighted the crowd both on and off stage. Quite simply superb.