Little Steven returned to Liverpool six months after playing two shows in one day. Shaun Ponsonby was on hand to light the soulfire. 

Little Steven Van Zandt seemed to have left his solo career behind.

He last released a solo record in 1999, and even that had been recorded in 1994, and he hasn’t toured since the late 80s.

He has always been a personal hero – not just for his music, but for his career beyond music, be that playing Tony Soprano’s consigliere Silvio Dante, or his Apartheid-busting political activity, or his garage rock radio station and record label, and of course his most famous role as the guitar player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

It was assumed by many that he wouldn’t bother returning to his solo career. Why would he? He is already doing so much else.

But over the last year, he has released a new album, Soulfire, and toured the world.

He came to Liverpool just seven months ago, when he played both a special free lunchtime show at The Cavern and a full performance at the O2 Academy.

Truth be told, the show wasn’t much different this time around, but it was no less dynamic.

His band, The Disciples of Soul – a 15 piece collective with a five horn players and three female backing vocalists – kicked into high gear straight away with Arthur Conley’s classic Sweet Soul Music, which more than set the tone for the evening. This led directly into Soulfire, which seems to have become the mission statement of his new solo career.

Last year it felt like most of the audience was present out of curiosity, but this time around you could hear the crowd singing along to Van Zandt’s songs.

His stage craft has always been pretty natural – he is by far one of the more charismatic sidemen in history, and is now used to mugging for stadiums full of people.

👉Little Steven: From Asbury Park to Soulfire👈

He begins 1982’s Until The Good Is Gone telling us the old days, hanging out with Springsteen and Southside Johnny in the early 70s when the Radio was God. Towards the end of the song, he goes into a monologue about how we all have to dig deep inside our souls and get together during these times, as the simple “Yeah, yeah, oh yeah” refrain is sung by the backing singers, and eventually the audience. When he brings the song back up, it feels like everybody is interlocked.

He talked about his career a little – how he essentially quit his solo career for The Sopranos (which led to Mafioso calls of “EH!“, “OH!” from the crowd, much to Stevie‘s amusement). He said he was going to leave politics at the door.

Truth be told, though, he can’t really do that. His material was far too political in the 80s. He may not draw too much attention to the message of songs like the Latin fused Bitter Fruit or the chugging hard rock of Salvation, but the message is there all the same.

But what he does do is turn it on its head slightly by making the show about our relationships to each other rather than party politics. Most of the songs on his new album are just great rock & soul tunes, so this is the impetus of the night.

It is also worth noting that this is billed as the “TeachRock Tour” – TeachRock being Van Zandt’s organisation that brings multimedia educational materials to teachers and students, and encourages teaching the history of popular music. As a result, teachers were able to get into the show for free.

It’s not surprise, then, that he gives us a little trip through rock & roll as seen by Little Steven. The City Weeps Tonight is a gloriously innocent doo-wop ballad, his take on James Brown’s Down and Out In New York City covers Blaxploitation soundtracks, and Forever is frankly one of the very best non-hit singles of the 80s.

The encore provided a real surprise in the form of Out Of Control from U2’s debut album Boy in the kind of soul arrangement that you would expect from Stevie’s band, before he ended on Out Of The Darkness, a last dash of hope that we’ll make it out of these hard times – a fitting way to end.

Stevie doesn’t have the greatest voice technically, but he knows how to use his voice, whether that be for music or protest. In some ways that is the more impressive talent. To match that with a band as solid as his shows his talent for arrangement, and there probably is a parallel universe where he gave songs like Forever and Love On The Wrong Side of Town to more successful artists and made millions in royalties as a professional songwriter.

But that would betray his passion for performing. It is joyful, infectious and life-affirming. The kind of show you can enjoy without knowing any of the music.

If you get the chance to see this configuration of The Disciples of Soul, we urge you to see it.

Image: Tom Adam