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From Hendrix to Crazy Horse, Lofgren heard history firsthand

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Nils Lofgren joins The Boss, band at Moda on March 22


COURTESY: ERIC MARCEL - Apart from his other roles, including in Bruce Springsteen's band, Nils Lofgren and musical partner Greg Varlotta recorded 'UK 2015: Face the Music Live.'If anyone can say he or she has had a front seat to musical history, it’s Nils Lofgren.

The singer and multi-instrumentalist probably is best known today as one of four guitarists for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, along with The Boss himself and Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, and Little Steven Van Zandt, whom Lofgren replaced in 1984. Van Zandt rejoined the band when it reformed in 1999, and the entourage rolls into town Tuesday, March 22, for a show at the Moda Center (www.rosequarter.com).

Playing saxophone for the band now is Jake Clemons, nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, whose tenor saxophone gave Springsteen’s tunes a gritty, poignant cast. Lofgren gave his props to Jake, but adds he nonetheless misses “The Big Man,” as Springsteen playfully called Clarence, who died in 2011.

“I miss him every night, and I feel like he’s on stage with me,” Lofgren says.

In Portland, Springsteen will lead the band through his entire 1980 album “The River,” then play several additional songs from his vast catalog, including “Rosalita,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Thunder Road,” and “Born to Run.”

Long before he played with Springsteen, Lofgren had made a mark in the music biz. His critically acclaimed band, Grin, opened for Jimi Hendrix three times, including once on Lofgren’s 19th birthday; he’s also played with Neil Young and can be heard on “After the Gold Rush” and “Tonight’s the Night,” and was briefly a member of Crazy Horse. Lofgren has toured with Ringo Starr, worked with Jerry Lee Lewis and Cab Calloway, and co-wrote songs with Lou Reed for Lofgren’s “Nils” album and for Reed’s “The Bells.”

But you don’t realize just how much other history this guy has brushed up against until you ask him how he wrote a song. Take “No Mercy,” off the 1979 album “Nils.” Lofgren used to work the corner of a fighter whose exploits inspired the tune.

“Back in my corner they scream ‘No mercy!’/’Put him away, don’t let him recover!’/Someone’s eyes drills holes in my head/It is his proud determined mother.”

The fighter who inspired the tune was none other than Jeff Smith, who successfully defended his world kickboxing title as part of an undercard fight in the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and last time Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met.

“I was taking karate ... and I’d go work the corner at fights with him,” Lofgren recalls of Smith. The karate student was impressed by the politeness and poise of pugilists like Smith as they both gave and took punishment.

“They’d come back to the corner spitting blood and teeth on me in a bucket, and then afterward they’d bow and be genuinely friendly and honor the battle they were just in,” he says.

Lofgren saw the boxers’ experience as emblematic of the wider struggles good people face in an often evil world that can force a decent person to harden his or her heart to a neighbor’s plight in order to feed or protect their loved ones.

You can hear a stellar version of “No Mercy” on “UK 2015: Face the Music Live,” a series of concerts, recorded over the past year with his longtime musical partner Greg Varlotta, as a followup to Lofgren’s nine-CD/one-DVD retrospective album “Face the Music” in 2014. Other standout cuts on the record include “Too Many Miles,” an epic bluesy ballad.