Little Steven Releases New Album Summer Of Sorcery

Van Zandt’s first studio record of new original material in 20 years features mighty backing band The Disciples of Soul

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Steven Van Zandt is back in full force on Summer of Sorcery, and he’s pulling all the stops on what is his first album of new original music in 20 years. The launch activities include record release shows this evening in Los Angeles and next Wednesday in Asbury Park, N.J. Since yesterday afternoon, Van Zandt has also “taken over” SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26), where he presents vintage and classic rock tracks, as well as songs from the new album throughout the weekend. Moreover, Summer of Sorcery will be supported with an extended tour through Europe and North America.

Little Steven clearly has been reenergized as a solo artist since the May 2017 release of predecessor Soulfire and that record’s supporting tour, which was also captured on last April’s Soulfire Live! album. He cut down the time between solo record releases from almost 20 to two years – Born Again Savage, the album prior to Soulfire, came out in 1999. And why not? With Bruce Springsteen’s previous Broadway engagement and his upcoming solo album Western Stars, the timing has been perfect for the E Street Band guitarist to focus on his own music.

Little Steven Tour Banner

In many ways, Summer of Sorcery represents a continuation of Soulfire. On both albums, Little Steven is backed by the impressive 14-piece band The Disciples of Soul, and both releases represent a musical journey back to the ’60s and ’70s. If one music artist can pull this off, it is Van Zandt, who frequently showcases his encyclopedic knowledge of music history on his SiriusXM program Underground Garage. He also did so when I saw him and the Disciples in September 2017 during the Soulfire tour.

The key difference between the two records is that Summer of Sorcery features new original music, whereas Soulfire includes songs Van Zandt wrote or co-wrote throughout his career. Most of the tracks on Soulfire also did not appear under his name but were released by other artists, such as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the band Van Zandt co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced, and Gary U.S. Bonds. You can read more about Soulfire here. Time to get to some new music!

Here’s the opener Communion, a brassy soul rocker and one of the 10 original tunes on the album.

Next up perhaps is a bit of a surprise, at least from my perspective: a Latin song called Party Mambo! I asked my wife who is from Puerto Rico about the tune. She expressed some doubts that fellow Hispanics will like it. While it may not 100 percent authentic, I think it’s groovy.

Vortex throws in blaxploitation, a genre that Little Steven clearly seems to like. Soulfire features a cool cover of Down And Out In New York City, which James Brown first recorded for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama Black Cesar. Unlike that tune, Vortex is an original, which sounds like an homage to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. When I’m listening to the tune, I can literally hear the backing vocalists in Shaft.

The title of the next track I’d like to call out pretty much says it all: Soul Power Twist. Another original, the soul horns-meet rock tune could have appeared on an album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It has a Sam Cooke vibe to it.

How about some blues? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s I Visit The Blues.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track and closer. “The whole theme of the album is summed up in that song, that wizardry, that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer,” Van Zandt stated in a press release. With clocking in at over eight minutes, it’s perhaps not your typical love song.

“With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day,” Van Zandt further pointed out. “That was the feeling in the ’60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. Our minds were blown every single day, one amazing thing after another, constantly lifting you up. So you kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost.”

Van Zandt seems to be a smart man, so I assume his above statement refers to the world of music, or he simply got carried away by excitement over his new album. The real world in America during the ’60s certainly was much more complicated, with racial segregation, the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, to name some the events that happened during that period.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert (2017)

Summer of Sorcery, which was produced by Van Zandt and appears on Wicked Cool/UMe, is available on CD, digitally, and on vinyl as double LP on 180-gram black vinyl. There is also a limited edition double LP on 180-gram psychedelic swirl vinyl one can get exclusively via uDiscover. The album was mixed and mastered by veteran Bob Clearmountain, who has worked in various capacities with Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Toto and many other top music artists.

In my opinion, Summer of Sorcery is a fun listening experience, even though it’s perhaps not quite as compelling as Soulfire. Like on that album, the production is a bit massive, but The Disciples of Soul are a hell of a band. Directionally speaking, I also agree with American Songwriter, which wrote the tracks “are often little more than revitalized riffs, melodies and rhythms of already existing songs retrofitted with new words and creative, even complex, rearrangements” – a little harsh, in my opinion. They added the album pulls out “all the stops to make this sonic smorgasbord explode out of the speakers with passion and clout.” I don’t think Van Zandt would claim the music represents anything new; in fact, I would argue it was his clear intention to pay homage to artists and music of the past, so the album’s retro sound isn’t surprising and doesn’t bother me.

As noted above, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul are going on the road. Following the above two album release gigs in the U.S., a 19-date European tour kicks off on May 16 in Liverpool, UK. Some of the other gigs include Berlin, Germany (May 28); Stockholm, Sweden (June 1); Brussels, Belgium (June 7) and Zurich, Switzerland (June 11), before that leg wraps up on June 23 in Paris, France. This is followed by 13 North American gigs, starting on June 29 in Syracuse, N.Y. and finishing on July 28 in Annapolis, Md. Then it’s back again to Europe until the beginning of September, before the band returns to North America with four shows in Las Vegas from September 5-8. There are plenty of additional dates during that second North American leg, including Tuscon, Ariz. (Sep 15); Austin, Texas (Sep 29); Birmingham, Ala. (Oct 3); Chicago (Oct 23); and New York City (Nov 6), the last listed gig. The current tour schedule is included in the above press release.

Sources: Wikipedia, UMe press release, Little Steven website, American Songwriter, YouTube

John Fogerty & ZZ Top Bring Blues & Bayous Tour To Holmdel, NJ

Yesterday evening, it was finally time for John Fogerty and ZZ Top at PNC Bank Arts Center. I’ve been fortunate to see a number of great shows there over the past few years and have come to like this amphitheater-style venue in Holmdel, NJ. The Allman Brothers Band, Santana and Steve Winwood are a few of the concerts that come to mind. Of course, one of the potential caveats with outdoor venues is the weather, and things started off a bit dicey on that front.

While driving to PNC, I was blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain from my car stereo, literally living the song: seeing the rain, coming down on a sunny day – at times pretty heavily! I arrived right in the middle of an early evening thunderstorm with lots of lightning and thunder, and it wasn’t hard to imagine to see a bad moon rising. But I had waited for Fogerty for some 40 years and was determined not to allow some rain to get into the way. Luckily, the thunderstorm dissipated before the show got underway and I could ride it out in my car in the parking lot.

Blues & Bayous Tour

ZZ Top started the main part of the evening. There was an opening act I missed due to surprisingly long lines to enter the facility – the first time I ever recall encountering that at PNC. The Texan rockers’ set was identical to the song lineup they played during the tour opener in Atlantic City the night before, mostly drawing from their ’70s albums and 1983’s Eliminator, the band’s most commercially successful release. That was the record that first brought ZZ Top on my radar screen, long before I listened to their first three albums, which I now generally like better than their 80s recordings.

As usual, I didn’t record any videos with one exception, so I’m relied on YouTube clips from previous live shows. To make it as similar as possible, I tried to find the most recent footage with an acceptable quality. I realize this approach not 100% ideal, but for the most part I believe it captures the overall feel of the show.

Things kicked off with Got Me Under Pressure from Eliminator followed by a nice cover of I Thank You, first recorded by Sam & Dave in 1968 – it’s hardly impossible to ever go wrong with a Stax tune, at least in my book! Next up was Waitin’ For The Bus, one of my favorite ZZ Top tunes. It is the opener of their third studio album Tres Hombres from July 1973. Unlike most other original tunes that are credited to all three members, only guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill share credits for this song. ZZ Top combined it with Jesus Left Chicago, another track from the same album. Here’s a nice clip from Bonnaroo 2013 where they did the same.

Another song I’d like to highlight is I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide. It is from Degüello, ZZ Top’s sixth studio release from November 1979. One thing I thought was fun to watch was Gibbons and Hill trading guitar and bass parts toward the end of the song.

Close to the end of the regular set came Sharp Dressed Man. The track, which is also from the Eliminator album, remains a classic to this day despite its noticeable ’80s sound. Surprisingly to me, when it came out in 1983, it only reached no. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it did better, peaking at no. 8 on the singles chart.

The encore was reserved for two other ZZ Top classics: La Grange from Tres Hombres and Tush, which in my opinion perhaps is the ultimate blues rocker – at least the studio version, on which the band sounds super-tight and just rocks! Tush is the closer of Fandago!, the follow-on album to Tres Hombres, which came out in April 1975.

ZZ Top certainly delivered a solid performance. All three of them are top notch musicians, who have played together forever. The one thing I thought was missing a bit was joy and spontaneity. At times the performance felt like a routine, a show they had done a million times – which undoubtedly must be true for most of the songs they played.

After a 15- to 20-minute intermission, John Fogerty and his band got on stage. Not only did they play a fantastic set, though no encore, but in marked contrast to ZZ Top, you could see these guys had fun, especially Fogerty. He was upbeat in his announcements and moved around the stage quite a bit, projecting an almost youthful joy of playing that reminded me a bit of Paul McCartney.

John and Shane Fogerty
John Fogerty with his son Shane Fogerty who plays guitar and his backing band

The set featured mostly featured classics from all CCR albums, except the last one, Mardi Gras, and tunes from Fogerty’s excellent 1985 solo record Centerfield. It also included a new tune Fogerty had recorded with Gibbons leading up to the tour, and a few covers. Unlike ZZ Top, Fogerty made a few variations to the set he played during the tour opener in Atlantic City.

The first track I’d like to highlight is Rock And Roll Girls from the Centerfield album that was released in January 1985. I’ve always liked this tune. One of the distinct features last night was a great Clarence Clemons-style solo by young saxophone dynamo Nathan Collins, giving the tune a nice Bruce Springsteen vibe. According to his blog on John Fogerty’s official website, he will be a senior at the University of Southern California in the Popular Music Performance program – way to go! The quality of the following clip isn’t great, but it’s the only recent version I could find that features the sax part.

Who’ll Stop The Rain appeared on Cosmo’s Factory, CCR’s fifth studio album from July 1970. Fogerty introduced it by pointing out he was playing the tune with the same Rickenbacker guitar he had used at Woodstock – a 325 Sunburst from 1969. How cool is that! And, as has been reported by Rolling Stone and other entertainment media, Fogerty actually gave away that guitar in 1972/73 and it was “lost” for some 44 years, until his wife Julie was able to recover it in 2016 after an extensive search and gave it to John as a Christmas present that year – wow!

Apart from showing an upbeat spirit throughout the night, Fogerty also made it very clear he’s a proud dad. In fact, one of the members of his backup band is his son Shane Fogerty, who did a nice job on guitar, frequently trading solos with his father. The gig also featured another son, Tyler Fogerty, who like his brother is a musician playing guitar and singing. In fact, in 2012, the two brothers were among the co-founding members of Hearty Har in Los Angeles, which describe themselves as a psychedelic rock band. Tyler shared vocals on a few covers, one of which was Good Golly, Miss Molly, the rock & roll classic that first was made famous by Little Richard in 1958.

The next song I’d like to highlight is Holy Grail, Fogerty’s new song he had recorded with Gibbons leading up to the tour. It’s got a nice La Grange groove to it. It’s the only tune I recorded myself, since I figured it might be tough to find it on YouTube. Fogerty and Gibbons had only performed it live once before during the tour opener the night before. That song and a cover of the Moon Martin tune Bad Case Of Loving You, which they also played together, was when Gibbons seemed to be most engaged.

Another standout of the show was a string of New Orleans songs, during which the band truly shined. Here’s New Orleans, a great tune co-written by Frank Guida and Joseph Royster for Gary U.S. Bonds, who recorded it in 1960. The following clip nicely captures last night’s groove, though it’s a slightly different band. The guy on the bass who is visibly having a ball is producer Don Was.

I could go on and on, but this post is already getting very long. So the last song I’d like to highlight is one of my all-time favorite CCR tunes, Have You Ever Seen The Rain. They recorded it for their sixth studio album Pendulum released in December 1970. It also appeared separately and became the band’s eighth gold-selling single. In another dad moment, Fogerty dedicated the tune to his 16-year-old daughter Kelsy Cameron Fogerty. Sure, this wasn’t the first time he did that, but it still felt genuine.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the other musicians in Fogerty’s band: Kenny Aronoff (drums), Bob Malone (keyboards), James LoMenzo (bass) and Devon Pangle (guitar). In addition to Collins, the horn section includes two other very talented young musicians: Steve Robinson (trombone) and Ethan Chilton (trumpet). Each of them also has a blog on Fogerty’s website. The fact that John Fogerty gives these young musicians this great opportunity for exposure tells me this man not only has soul but also is a true class act.

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, Rolling Stone, Hearty Har website, John Fogerty Facebook page and official website, YouTube

Little Steven Captures 2017 Tour In Great Live Album

“Soulfire Live!” is a journey through rock history

Today, I coincidentally came across this great new live album from Steven Van Zandt and his excellent Disciples Of Soul backing band in Apple Music. I had completely missed Soulfire Live! when it appeared on April 27 on digital platforms for streaming and downloading. According to an announcement, the “surprise release” came just before Little Steven and the band embarked on a new tour through the U.S. in late April, which will last through May and be followed by dates in Europe in late June and July.

Recorded at 2017 shows in Europe and North America, the 24-track collection features original tunes by Little Steven and covers. It includes various tracks from his excellent last studio album Soulfire from May 2017, his first new record in nearly 18 years and one of my favorite albums from last year. I previously wrote about it here. And since I really dig the music, I also decided to catch Little Steven and The Disciples at one of their U.S. gigs in September last year. I also had something to say about that show here.

Soulfire Live! nicely captures the concert atmosphere. At least as intriguing as the music are some of Little Steven’s announcements, during which he provides his perspective on music and shares anecdotes from the past, reminiscent to what he does on his excellent Underground Garage radio show. But the highlight of the talking undoubtedly is Mike Stoller, who the introduced the band at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles last October – yep, The Mike Stoller who together with Jerry Leiber wrote numerous legendary tunes for artists like Big Mama Thornton (Hound Dog), The Drifters (Fools Fall In Love), Ben E. King (Stand By Me) and of course Elvis Presley (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Treat Me Nice, etc.).

Stoller notes he was an usher at the theatre 67 years ago until got into an argument with his boss and was fired. After that he says he decided to team up with his friend Jerry Leiber to write songs, dryly adding it worked out pretty good. Listen for yourself – it’s priceless!

On to some music. Here is one of my favorite covers from this collection, which also appeared on the Soulfire studio album: Blues Is My Business, a tune co-written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and sung by Etta James on her 2003 blues record Let’s Roll. The band is just killing it!

One of the original Little Steven tunes is Angel Eyes, which he recorded for his 1982 solo debut record Men Without Women. That tune has a nice soul groove.

Standing In The Line Of Fire is another song by Little Steven. He wrote it for Gary U.S. Bonds, and it became the title track of a studio album Bonds released in September 1984. Little Steven also co-produced the record. I like the song’s Hank Marvin-style guitar intro.

Another superb cover is the blaxploitation tune Down And Out In New York City. It was written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, and recorded by James Brown for Black Caesar, a soundtrack album for the motion picture of the same name, which appeared in February 1973. The track was also included on Soulfire, though the live version is extended.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is another cover, Groovin’ Is Easy, by American blues rock and soul band The Electric Flag. The song was written by the band’s guitarist Nick Gravenites and appeared on their debut album A Long Time Comin’ from March 1968. Based on some of their music I’ve heard, I have to check out these guys more closely.

Soulfire Live! was produced and arranged by Van Zandt, and appears on his rock and roll label Wicked Cool Records. It was mixed by heavy hitter Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and The Who, among many others. The album will also become available on CD, Blu-ray and vinyl editions this summer.

Sources: Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) press release, NJArts.net, Wikipedia, YouTube