Springsteen Guitarist Nils Lofgren Remembers The Boss’ Purple Rain Prince Tribute
Bruce Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren has had many surprises in his 39 years as part of The Boss’ famed E Street Band, but none were more unexpected than being asked to play the iconic guitar solo in Prince’s signature song, Purple Rain, during a tribute to His Royal Badness, just days following his shock death.
News of Prince’s passing broke seven years ago, on Thursday, 21 April 2016, after emergency services were called to his home at Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Two days later, Lofgren, who is currently back on the road with the E Street Band, for the Bruce Springsteen & E Street Band 2023 Tour, was performing Purple Rain onstage with Springsteen at Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, New York City.
“It never entered my mind that Prince was in trouble”
Recalling the moment he heard about Prince’s death, Lofgren tells Dig!, “That was very traumatic… I saw an ambulance on TV in front of Paisley Park and it never entered my mind that Prince was in trouble… I just could not believe it. Because I knew he was such a health nut.”
As news of the tragedy spread around the world, tributes came in from friends, fans and fellow musicians. With a few days off between shows on The River Tour 2016, Springsteen decided he would pay his own respects by opening his next gig with a cover of Purple Rain.
“I started playing videos of Prince, and I jammed with him”
“Bruce called me the night before,” Lofgren recalls. “‘Hey, Nils. Why don’t you let the guys know, tomorrow we’re probably going to take a shot at Purple Rain.’ And I called a couple guys in the band and said, ‘Hey, just spread the word.’”
Having got the message out there, Lofgren began to prepare for the possibility that he might be asked to recreate what’s regarded as one of the best guitar solos of all time. “Bruce didn’t say anything about it,” Lofgren says. “And I wasn’t going to ask him – we were on the road; we were all shook up.
“Steve [Van Zandt, E Street Band guitarist], Bruce or I could have played the solo,” Lofgren continues, naming all three of the E Street Band’s guitarists. “So, in case he called on me, I started going to YouTube and watching Prince play.”
“I got a little nutty and a little deep into it”
Arriving at Barclays Center early the following day, Lofgren found a space where he could trade licks with Prince. “I got a little private room with a little tiny amp with a fuzzy sound – a little two-inch speaker with a battery – and my Strat, and I played along and jammed with him,” the guitarist explains.
“I wasn’t trying to copy him. But just getting into his vibe and feel, and not overthinking it… I did that for about an hour and a half, and I got a little nutty and a little deep into it.”
Forced to take a break in order to show his guests for that night’s show, comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert and his wife, Evelyn, around the venue, Lofgren, whose experiences on the road with Neil Young while touring the Tonight’s The Night album taught him how to channel grief through his playing (see Dig!’s interview with Lofgren about Young’s Official Bootleg Series release Somewhere Under The Rainbow), found that the break prepared him for the performance itself:
“After all that jamming with Prince on YouTube, getting away from dwelling on his death was a nice way for me to walk into the show,” Lofgren says.
“When the solo came, Bruce pointed at me”
As The E Street Band began to soundcheck for the gig, Lofgren still didn’t know who would be taking the solo. Eventually, Springsteen signalled to him while the group ran through Purple Rain together for the first time. “We played the song. When the solo came, nobody talked about it,” Lofgren says. “Bruce pointed at me, and I started jamming.
“That preparation paid off,” he adds, “because I had some familiarity with where I might go… We caught a good version of it.”
At the end of the performance, Springsteen declared, “Prince forever. God rest.”
“It was a magical moment in a very dark time”
The title track to the Purple Rain album has gone down in history as not only one of the best Prince songs, but also one of the best power ballads in rock history. After performing it at the start of his show on 23 April, Springsteen moved his Prince tribute to the encore for the following gig, also at Barclays Center, two nights later, before playing it for the third and final time at his next concert, at Camp Nou, in Barcelona, Spain, on 14 May – the opening night of The River Tour 2016’s European leg.
Yet Lofgren, who splits his time between Springsteen’s E Street Band and Neil Young’s long-running backing group, Crazy Horse, and who has also recently contributed three solo songs to the Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young album, All Roads Lead Home, says he wants one more shot at the Purple Rain solo.
“I’d like to do it again,” Lofgren admits. “I’ve played the solo at home a bit. I think I’ve got it in better shape – not note-for-note, but some better things to weave through it. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know. But it was a magical moment in a very dark time.”