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Most people know Nils Lofgren as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but to Washingtonians of a certain age, the Bethesda-raised guitarist will always be remembered for his own rock band, Grin. That group’s career went from the hallowed halls of the Wheaton Youth Center to the hallowed halls of the Kennedy Center, where the local favorite played a farewell concert in 1974.
Thirty years later, Grin has been scheduled to return to Bethesda—well, North Bethesda—for a Washington Musical Timeline Concert at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center on Wednesday, Aug. 25, with many of Lofgren’s friends and colleagues signed on to salute the native son. The Washington Area Music Association’s Mike Schreibman, who co-produced the series, says that “of all the musicians who have come from this area, [Lofgren is] way at the top of my list as one of the greats.” Lofgren’s music, he says, literally moves him to tears.
Ronnie Newmyer, who has played bass for Lofgren several times over the years and continues to back him on tour, was approached by Schreibman to organize the concert. “One of the cool things about this show, and about Nils, is the amount of local musicians that he’s given an opportunity to be part of his band,” Newmyer says. “Rather than look to New York or L.A. for his sidemen, he’s always used local people for about 90 percent of his touring players. Nils kinda gave us all the idea that perhaps we could make our living in music.
“Of course, he was wrong,” adds the 50-year-old Newmyer, whose current day job is managing his family’s business, the Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria chain. “But it’s nice to be inspired anyway.”
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“I was not expecting this. I’m very overwhelmed and surprised,” says Lofgren by phone from the home he still keeps in upper Montgomery County, mostly as a “way station for my bands to rehearse when we play the Northeast.” His main residence is with his wife and stepson in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Though Lofgren is usually lauded for his signature thumb-picked guitar style, the Strathmore show was conceived to spotlight his songwriting skills. “He’s got this incredible reputation, well-deserved, as a guitarist,” says Newmyer, “but he’s also an amazing songwriter who’s written in a huge variety of genres.”
Indeed, Lofgren’s Beatles-inspired pop sensibilities, punky attitude, and melodic gifts are evidenced in such power-poppy, prepunk Grin tunes as “See What Love Can Do,” “Back It Up,” and “I Came to Dance”—not to mention deliberately Stones-ish “Keith Don’t Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin),” and the defiantly happy shuffle “The Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet.”
Though none of these shoulda-been-hits made it anywhere near the charts, Lofgren’s body of work inspired the likes of ex–Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who agreed to fly in from Los Angeles for the show. Local musicians who’ve played in various Lofgren groups over the years include guitarist Bobby Manriquez, singers Mary Ann Redmond and Tommy Lepson, drummer Mike Zack, and former Grinmates Bob Berberich and brother Tom Lofgren. The last two are also slated to join Nils and Billy Gordon, 24-year-old son of the late Grin bassist Bob Gordon, for the reunion.
Lofgren is enthusiastic about the show, something the band members shied away from following Gordon’s 1996 death after a long bout with multiple sclerosis. That the Strathmore show is also free and seemed “the appropriate setting”—and that Gordon’s son is participating in “a beautiful nod to his father”—prompted Lofgren to agree to the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” (Fortunately, Springsteen is on hiatus.) Speaking prior to the musicians’ first rehearsal, Lofgren says, “I expect it will be really emotional.”
Sadly, Lofgren-penned jingles “Bullets Fever”—written for D.C.’s then-champion basketball team—and “Nobody Bothers Me,” a hook-laden commercial built on the catch-phrase of Jhoon Rhee’s Institute of Tae Kwon Do, are not on the set list.
“After writing 200 songs,” sighs Lofgren, “I hope there’s enough material so we don’t have to go to a novelty act.”