Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Grin
My big sister’s boyfriend works at a radio station, and he gave me a box full of albums by people you may have heard of. In many cases these albums generated a radio hit or two, but today they are forgotten because the albums have been long out of print and the well-known songs are part of a greatest hits collection. Then there are albums that had no radio hits – and were not big sellers at the time – but have taken on a semi-legendary status because they were early works by a well-known artist.
Today’s album falls into that latter category: Grin, the eponymous 1971 debut album for a rock trio starring singer/guitarist Nils Lofgren. Lofgren is perhaps best known today as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, with whom Lofgren has played since 1984. But Lofgren’s recording career is even longer than Springsteen’s: as a teenager, he joined Neil Young’s band to help record the classic After The Gold Rush (1970). Lofgren was also briefly a member of Crazy Horse, and appeared on that group’s first album in 1971; those two experiences helped Lofgren land a record deal for Grin.
Grin’s 1971 debut album presents an energetic rock band with much of the same commitment to basic rock and roll that Springsteen would exhibit on his first record two years later. Producer David Briggs (also a Neil Young associate) would give Grin a polish that may be a little too slick for some tastes, but you can’t hide the exuberance that young Lofgren pours into rockers like “See What Love Can Do” and “Direction.”
A lot of this is catchy stuff, and Lofgren (supported by drummer Bob Berberich and bassist Bob Gordon, who also both added backing vocals and the occasional lead vocal) really shines on guitar. Two members of Crazy Horse, Ralph Molina and Danny Whitten, along with Neil Young sing backing vocals on three songs including “Outlaw” and “Pioneer Mary.”
But all of this went for naught – with so many classic albums coming out in this era Grin’s debut just got lost in the shuffle. The band went on to release three more albums, including the acclaimed Gone Crazy (1973) but they never made a dent. Grin disbanded in 1974 and Lofgren went on to a solo career that had some moments of brilliance (his 1975 solo debut, for one) but only rarely managed to match the excitement of Grin’s early records.
Despite spending a lot of his time with the E Street Band, Lofgren still manages to put out the occasional solo effort these days – look for Sacred Weapon from 2006, or his most recent, The Loner – Nils Sings Neil, an album of Neil Young covers from 2008. Nils Lofgren is one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll and Grin is one of the great lost groups.