Nils Lofgren

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For an artist of Nils Lofgren's rather fringe -- even cultish -- stature, he sure has released a lot of live albums. While none can match the rough passion of his first, the "authorized bootleg" Back It Up, each has its moments. Some are solo; others feature one of his ever-changing bands; and all reprise at least a few of the early, post-Grin tunes from his most successful period on the A&M label in the mid- to late '70s along with songs from whatever new release he is touring behind. This one, recorded at New Jersey's famed Stone Pony just after the end of Bruce Springsteen's grueling Born in the U.S.A. tour on November 1, 1985, is typical of the lot. His band -- featuring brother Tom, Stuart Smith on guitar and keyboards, bassist Wornell Jones, and drummer Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, once Mitch Ryder's skinman -- is excellent. They bring fire to what starts out as a rather tame performance but kicks into higher gear by the fourth track, "Cry Tough," and mostly stays there for the remainder of the 74-minute show. It's likely some in the audience had come hoping for a surprise Bruce appearance (he never shows), but Lofgren is in good enough form to keep their attention. He was touring behind the disappointing and excessively slick Flip so, not surprisingly, four of this show's 14 selections originate from it, and also not surprisingly they are the weakest moments of the set. The gig is marred by cheap-sounding, and terribly dated, synths that were all the rage in 1985 and ruined albums from established artists as respected as Eric Clapton. It's hard to fault Lofgren for adding them -- he wanted a hit as much as the next guy -- but the result is cringe-worthy, especially when songs such as "Dreams Die Hard" and "Big Tears Fall" are feeble to begin with. Only a six-minute version of "Flip Ya Flip," with its driving Motown beat, comes alive from the Flip album. Lofgren tosses off a perfunctory "Any Time at All" that doesn't bode well for his taking on a Beatles cover and can't even resuscitate "Rock and Roll Crook" from his debut. But things improve with a raging "Empty Heart" that gets the dynamics right as Lofgren tears into a typically slicing, reverbed guitar solo. The backing band is solid but not loose enough and ends up sanding down the edges where Lofgren works best. The set's highlight is an unusually slow, solo take on Crazy Horse member Danny Whitten's ballad "I Don't Want to Talk About It" that's a touching and obviously heartfelt tribute to his ex-bandmate. A set-closing "I Came to Dance" is a poor substitute for the MIA "Keith Don't Go" and "Beggar's Day," but ends things on an upbeat note. Despite committed performances from all involved, this isn't the live album you'll pull out to prove how great Lofgren can be on a good night.

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