When I listened to the title song of Steven Van Zandt’s new album Soulfire, which was released as the record’s lead single a couple of weeks ago, my first thoughts were his guitar gig with the E Street Band and his fantastic radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. The fact Van Zandt does his own music wasn’t on my radar screen. Perhaps that’s not such a big surprise, given Soulfire is Little Steven’s first solo album since 1999’s Born Again Savage. But what a terrific return!
From the great opener (title song) to the last tune Ride the Night Away, it’s simply a joy to listen to Soulfire, which takes you on a trip back to the ’60s, rock with plenty of horn accents, as well as some blues, R&B and even doo-wop. “For those who are familiar with my work, Soulfire is a return to how most people identify me, which is that soul-meets-rock thing,” Van Zandt told Billboard. As noted above, admittedly, I only had limited knowledge of his impressive work, so I definitely had and still have some catching up to do!
Soulfire is a collection of songs Van Zandt has written or co-written over the past four decades, supplemented with a few covers. To me the standout among the latter is his take of the James Brown tune Down and Out in New York City. When I heard the beginning for the first time, I was like, ‘wait a moment, what just happened?’ The percussion and the wah-wah guitar sound like the start of a Barry White grove. I could literally picture White’s deep voice coming on next – very cool!
“I love the blaxploitation genre,” Van Zandt explained to Elmore Magazine. “We do a special on the radio show every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we call it ‘Blaxploitation Friday.’…….We did it for BluesFest, came up with a really cool groove and a new horn line and made it our own.” Apart from being a great version, the tune also showcases Van Zandt’s versatility.
Blues Is My Business, written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and initially performed by Etta James, is another terrific cover. I like the way USA Today characterized the song: “Nothing else on Soulfire so clearly traces his key roots, including an introductory riff that echoes Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and a slamming bass and guitar groove grounded in Otis Redding’s and Carla Thomas’ Tramp.” The way Van Zandt sings the song, the great background vocals and the groove also remind me a bit of Joe Cocker.
Five songs on Soulfire go back to Van Zandt’s time with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a band he co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced. Some of these tunes include I Don’t Want to Go Home, the title song from the Jukes’ 1976 debut album; Love on the Wrong Side of Town, a co-write with Bruce Springsteen that appeared on This Time It’s For Real (1977); and I’m Coming Back, from the Jukes’ 1991 release Better Days.
Standing in the Line of Fire is a great version of the title song of Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1984 album, which Van Zandt co-produced with Bond. Soulfire is a perfect opener that sets the album’s tone. The intro with its funky guitar and pumping rhythm immediately draw you in. “I wrote it several years ago with one of the Breakers, a Danish band on my label Wicked Cool,” Van Zandt told Rolling Stone. “The song felt like the obvious centerpiece of an album that is conceived to not only reintroduce myself as an artist, but also serve as a summary of a lifetime of work.”
Another standout on the album is The City Weeps Tonight, which illustrates Van Zandt’s appreciation of doo-wop music, a genre he also likes to play on his great radio show. In fact, in 1973, he even toured with a doo-wop band, The Dovells. Initially, Van Zandt had planned to include the tune on his 1982 debut album Men Without Women but didn’t finish it at the time.
I realize I’m already very deep into this post without having said a word about Little Steven’s backup band: The Disciples of Soul. Van Zandt initially put the band together for his debut solo album. They were also prominent on his 1994 follow-up Voice of America. Last year, he reformed the Disciples. Other than the fact that it’s a 15-piece band he put together to record the new album during a break between the European and Australian legs of Springsteen’s last tour, I couldn’t find any information on the current lineup. What I can safely say is the Disciples are a killer band!
In addition to his solo music and Little Steven’s Underground Garage, there are are so many more sides to Van Zandt that it’s pretty much impossible to give him full justice in one post – from political activist to TV actor and producer to philanthropist – so I’m not even gonna try. Let’s just say, Van Zandt wears many different hats or perhaps more appropriately bandanas. This certainly at least in part explains why it almost took him 20 years to release a new solo album.
Little Steven also always has something interesting to say about music. So what’s his take on the status of rock? “I call it an endangered species,” he told Billboard in the above interview. “The rock era is over. I clock it from [Bob Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” [1965, added for context] to the death of Kurt Cobain [1994, added for context], which was almost exactly 30 years. At that point we returned to a pop era and rock returned to being a cult, which, to be honest, is probably where it belongs. It was never meant to really be the mainstream. We just staged a coup d’état on the charts in the mid-’60s.”
As big rock fan, I hate to admit Van Zandt pretty much nailed it with his above comments. And while he doesn’t believe rock will come back “because the infrastructure that created rock is no longer there,” I’d like to stay a bit more optimistic – maybe there is also a dose of naivete. As long as we have guys like Van Zandt, the Boss, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, to name a few, rock isn’t dead yet. Hopefully, these artists will inspire more younger musicians to take the torch – obviously big shoes to fill!
Van Zandt will shortly embark on a tour to support Soulfire. According to the tour schedule on his web site, things will kick off next Sat, May 27, at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., a great venue I visited myself for another show last month. Interestingly, this already sold out gig appears to be the only planned performance in the U.S. thus far. Van Zandt & The Disciples will then take the show to Europe, where they are slated to play 17 dates across the continent in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, to name some. The current last date is the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway on Aug 5.
Here’s a clip of a nice live performance of Soulfire, which appears to have been captured last October at London BluesFest in the U.K.
Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Elmore Magazine, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Little Steven’s web site, YouTube