Consigliere to both Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano, Little Steven wows Liverpool with two very different shows in one day. Superfan Shaun Ponsonby wasn’t going to miss them for the world.
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 in the last few months he has released a new album, Soulfire, and toured the world.
Rocking up in Liverpool has clearly been a dream of his, and nowhere was this more evident than his decision to play a free lunchtime set at the Cavern. A known student of rock & roll history, he takes to the small stage with his huge band (we kept losing count but it could be anywhere between 15-20 members) scattered around the room.
“Rock & roll is my religion, and this is Mecca, baby” he announces with a smile on his face, living out a dream he has had since childhood.
He opens with The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, a song the band has never played before, and it sets a precedent for the whole set. He has no intention of promoting his own material – he wants to pay tribute to the musical roots of the city.
Although effectively a Beatles tribute, Van Zandt is all about roots, so he astutely splits the short set between Beatles songs and tunes that the band would have played on stage at the Cavern in the early 60s. He knows his shit. A couple of these songs were never recorded by The Beatles in the studio, but were known to be played by them live, or in BBC sessions. In fact, he announces Richie Barrett’s Some Other Guy as the most iconic moment in the history of the club, due to it being the only known footage of The Beatles playing in the Cavern.
“Well, that went fast” he says after seven songs. “We’re gonna leave you with one more, but we’ll see you tonight”. He proceeds to pull out a scarf that reads “All you need is love”, and naturally ends his set with that anthem of the summer of love.
We are asked to leave promptly. They have to get the equipment over to the O2 Academy. But it had been a special experience. It was a historic show. None of the songs had been played by the band before, and are unlikely to be again. It was a truly once in a lifetime-type thing, and it was a thrill to be able to share Van Zandt’s boyhood dream with him.
It was just a few hours later when we were back in his presence, and it was a totally different but no less rewarding experience than the one we had at the Cavern.
This time around, the Disciples of Soul opened with Even The Losers as a tribute to the recently deceased Tom Petty. Despite the significantly larger stage than the one in the Cavern, the sheer size of the band went that it still looked like a struggle to fit everybody on.
But this time we can see everybody, and they feel like a real force. The three female backing singers who were totally out of sight from us at the Cavern are now in full view. They seem to have been instructed to present “60s girl group sass”. One in particular is potentially the most charismatic person we have seen on stage, and threatens to upstage Steven himself on several occasions.
In a BBC interview last week, Van Zandt claimed that around 80% of the audience at his shows come out of sheer curiosity. This has its positive and negative attributes.
On the one hand, it means that there is very little in the way of expectation. That weight is lifted entirely. On the other, it takes the crowd a while to warm up. They are pleased to see him, of course, and he gets a warm reception, but it probably takes 1982’s Until The Good Is Gone for most to be fully engaged.
This is largely down to Van Zandt’s stage craft. He begins by telling of how he, Springsteen and Southside Johnny used to live together, and how the song is about that time. Towards the end, he goes into a monologue about how we all have to dig deep inside our souls and get together 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. When he became political in the 80s, he explained, too many people thought Ronald Reagan was God. But, referring to Trump, “that man explains himself better than I ever could”.
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 reggae tinged Solidarity and Latin fused Bitter Fruit, 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.
He also 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, Salvation gives us hard rock, and Forever is frankly one of the very best non-hit singles of the 80s.
It may be true that 80% of the audience came out of nothing more than curiosity, but by the end everybody was chanting his name.
It is safe to say that he probably converted a lot of new fans in Liverpool today.
Pictures by Tom Adam and Sakura