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

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

Little Steven’s “Soul-Meets-Rock Thing” Comes Alive

The man with the bandana and his Disciples of Soul play historic theater in Staten Island, N.Y.

Steven Van Zandt had not been on my radar screen as a solo artist until recently. Things changed in May when he released Soulfire, his first solo album since 1999. It quickly became one of my favorite new records this year, which I previously reviewed here. When I found out he was kicking off a tour at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., that show in late May – his only scheduled U.S. gig at the time – was already sold out! So I was glad that after a European leg, he brought the tour back to the U.S. Last Thursday, I was able to see his great show at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, N.Y.

Unlike the Count Basie Theatre, the venue wasn’t sold out; in fact, I would say only half of the seats were taken, which was unfortunate. But it didn’t seem to have an impact. Little Steven and his top-notch band The Disciples of Soul delivered a powerful performance that lasted for close to two and a half hours. And while the audience wasn’t the biggest, people certainly were engaged.

The show kicked off with the soul classic Sweet Soul Music. Written by Arthur Conley and Otis Redding, the tune was first released by Conley in 1967. This was followed right away by Soulfire, the title track from Van Zandt’s above mentioned latest album. In a Rolling Stone interview ahead of the record’s release, Van Zandt noted he co-wrote the song with a member of Danish rock and soul band The Breakers, which first released it on their eponymous album in June 2011. Here’s a clip of Soulfire captured in Leipzig, Germany back in June.

Tunes from almost the entire Soulfire album were sprinkled throughout the show, and I have to say those were the tracks I generally liked the most. One of the highlights of the record that was also a standout of the show was Blues Is My Business, a great cover of an Etta James tune included on her 2003 album Let’s Roll. Here’s a cool clip.

Another great song from Soulfire and highlight of the set was Down And Out In New York City. Written by Bobbie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, the track was first recorded by James Brown for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama Black Cesar. The performance showcased the band’s terrific five-piece horn section, with each musician playing solo back-to-back. Here’s a nice clip of the tune recorded at another gig earlier this month.

In addition to Soulfire, Little Steven also played songs from his earlier solo records with The Disciples of Soul, especially their debut Men Without Women (1982) and Voice Of America (1984). Among these tunes was Angel Eyes, written by Van Zandt and included on the 1982 record.

And then there was of course Van Zandt’s previous work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. He was a co-founding member and produced various of their records. The set included three tunes from that band: I’m Coming Back and I Don’t Want To Go Home, two Van Zandt tunes that also appear on the Soulfire album, and Love On The Wrong Side Of Town, which he co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen. Here is a clip of I Don’t Want To Go Home, the title track of Southside Johnny’s 1976’s studio debut. It was part of the encore.

This post would not be complete without further acknowledging the musicians of The Disciples of Soul, a mighty 14-piece and truly amazing band. The line-up includes Marc Ribler (guitar), Charley Drayton  (drums), Everett Bradley (percussion, backing vocals), Lowell “Banana” Levinger (piano, mandolin), Andy Burton (organ, strings, accordion), Jak Daley (bass), Eddie Manion (baritone saxophone), Stan Harrison (tenor saxophone, flute), Clark Gayton (trombone), Ravi Best (trumpet), Ron Tooley (trumpet), and backing vocalists Jessica Wagner, Erika Jerry and YahZarah.

According to the tour schedule posted on Little Steven’s web site, the band will continue touring the U.S. throughout October. In early November, they are scheduled to return to Europe for another six weeks, with shows in England, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Rolling Stone, Little Steven’s website, YouTube