With the only UK date for Springsteen’s right hand man being in Manchester, Shaun Ponsonby finally gets to see one of his heroes playing a solo set in the flesh.
I’m known to be a Bruce Springsteen fan, but the truth is I found The Boss through Little Steven.
For the uninitiated, Steven Van Zandt is a long-time member of the E Street Band. He joined for the Born To Run tour, left before the Born In The USA tour, and returned for the new Millennium. He is Springsteen’s right hand man, on stage foil and occasional co-producer.
He is also one of the most underrated songwriters and producers I can think of. He starred as Silvio Dante in The Sopranos (ironically mirroring with Tony Soprano his own relationship with Springsteen). He has produced comeback records for 60s icons such as Ronnie Spector, Gary US Bonds and Darlene Love. He led the western boycott that brought down Apartheid and freed Nelson Mandela (for which he was honoured twice by the United Nations), single-handedly stopped the assassination of Paul Simon, curates the Rock Band game, got Bat Out Of Hell signed and presents one of the best radio shows in America.
Somehow in the middle of all that, he managed to have a solo career too.
The bizarre thing about Van Zandt’s solo work is that you can’t really peg it down. His first solo album, 1982’s Men Without Women, was a horn-driven New Jersey rock & soul album based on unrealised material from the albums he wrote and produced for old friend Southside Johnny.
From 1984 he went political with Voice of America – a complete 180 degree turn into garage and arena rock with a dose of Africana. The following Freedom – No Compromise (1987) and Revolution (1989) incorporated more dance elements and continued down the world music route, and finally 1999’s Born Again Savage was guitar-led, heavy rock owing more to Led Zeppelin and The Kinks, described in the liner notes as “The record I would have made in 1969 had I been capable”.
So, when he announced dates ahead of his first album in 18 years, the question was; Which Little Steven would we get? The material on each album don’t necessarily fit well together, so how could he possibly go about it?
When new album Soulfire was released, it became abundantly clear – Little Steven has gone back to his roots.
— Shaun Ponsonby (@CosmicSlopper) June 18, 2017
With no support, The Disciples of Soul make their way on stage a little after 8pm, and they fill the stage. There is guitar, bass, drums, two keyboard players – one of whom is Lowell “Banana” Levinger of cult 60s band The Youngbloods, who Van Zandt is visibly excited to be sharing the stage with – extra percussion, a five piece horn section and three female backing singers whose remit appears to be “Ronnie Spector sass”. All in all, there are around 15 band members, a powerful force both visually and, with crisp, clear sound that enables you to hear everything clearly, audibly too.
The room erupts when Van Zandt walks on stage during the intro to Soulfire. Even though much of the crowd will have undoubtedly seen him on stage with Springsteen multiple times over the last 20 years (if the occasional “Broooocing” was anything to go by), it’s clear that the people in the room have missed him as a solo artist, and that affection barely wavers as the night goes on.
The new album feels like Van Zandt rediscovering who he is as an artist. It feels fresh but familiar. Many of the songs have been featured in various projects he has been involved in, from Standing In The Line of Fire (Gary US Bonds, retooled into a tribute to Ennio Morricone), to Saint Valentine’s Day (The Cocktail Slippers) and several songs he wrote and produced for Southside Johnny (Coming Back, Love on the Wrong Side of Town, Some Things Just Don’t Change, the anthemic I Don’t Want To Go Home), along with covers of Etta James (The Blues Is My Business) and James Brown’s Blaxploitation soundtracks (Down and Out in New York City). That the vast majority of these songs are aired tonight does much to translate the feeling of the album onto the stage.
It was surprising how much of Van Zandt’s solo discography was able to fit into the New Jersey rock & soul set-up. Going in, we almost expected to hear the majority of Men Without Women and Soulfire. But, in fact, just three from the former were played. The only solo album that wasn’t represented was the guitar heavy Born Again Savage.
Van Zandt’s songwriting had become increasingly political as the 80s wore on, and given the state of things right now, it wasn’t a surprise that he indulged slightly in that side of his persona. It is actually interesting how he and Springsteen have almost swapped roles in that regard. Springsteen is now more explicitly politically motivated than he ever has been in his music, whereas Van Zandt has become considerably less so with age.
He told us that “We have been thinking of Manchester a lot” in the wake of the recent atrocities, and dedicated Solidarity to the city at the start of reggae-inspired trio of songs, that also included 1989’s self-explanatory Leonard Peltier and 1984’s I Am a Patriot, a timely protest against blind nationalism that has been covered by Jackson Browne and Pearl Jam, with such gut-wrenching lines as “I want to run like the lion released from the cages/Released from the rages burning in my heart tonight”, delivered with fervour and passion.
On a technical level, Stevie has never been a singer, but he has always been able to use his limited voice to great effect. There is a pureness to his voice – you believe every word he is singing.
There were some favourites in the crowd – Love On The Wrong Side Of Town is a song that Van Zandt wrote with Springsteen for Southside Johnny, so it was always going to go down well, and has now been recast with a Byrds-like intro. He followed it up by saying it was written during a time when the three of them shared an apartment, before introducing Until The Good Is Gone – musically, a mirror of The Miracles’ My Girl Has Gone – as being about that time.
After the main set finished on Forever, one of the great non-hits of the 80s, the band returned to a thunderous, never-ending applause for a tour premier of Out Of The Darkness. As the cheers continued, he seemed to be debating playing another. If it was the E Street Band, they undoubtedly would have, but there was something of a “Keep em wanting more” vibe to the Disciples of Soul.
And we certainly did want more. I can confidently say it was worth the wait. So let’s hope it doesn’t take him so long to come back.
- Image: Artist’s Facebook page