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

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

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Raising Money For Parkinson’s Rocks

Light of Day Winterfest includes benefit concerts in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia

Listening to my favorite music live is an experience I greatly enjoy. I find it even more powerful when it also involves raising money for an important cause, such as fighting hunger, poverty or disease. Last Sunday, I attended a Light of Day Winterfest 2019 event at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. It was part of a series of regional concerts conducted between January 11 and January 21 to raise money for Parkinson’s disease and other related neurodegenerative disorders. My mother-in-law has had Parkinson’s for more than 10 years, which gave the event additional special meaning.

The annual series of concerts is the key fundraising vehicle of the Light of Day Foundation. According to its website, the New Jersey-based nonprofit funds research into possible cures, improved treatments and support for people living with Parkinson’s and related diseases and their caregivers. The foundation was established by music industry veteran and manager Bob Benjamin and some of his friends in 1998, shortly after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Light of Day is the title of a song written by Benjamin’s friend Bruce Springsteen for a 1987 motion picture with the same name.

The annual concerts have been held since 2000. Over the years, they grew from a one-day event in Asbury Park to a 10-day series of concerts held in different locations. In addition to the Jersey shore town, which remains the main hub, LOD Winterfest 2019 includes shows in Montclair, N.J., New York City, Philadelphia and Rockland County, N.Y. Light of Day concerts have also expanded beyond the U.S. to Canada, Australia and Europe. The most recent overseas shows took place in England, Germany, Switzerland and various other European countries in late November and December 2018.

Apart from Bruce Springsteen, who has appeared at various Light of Day concerts, other performers over the years have included prominent music artists, such as Southside Johnny, Jakob Dylan and Gary US Bonds, as well as numerous lesser known local artists. To date, Light of Day has raised more than $4.5 million for its support to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

Following are some clips I captured from the event, which mostly focused on tributes. I’d like to kick it off with The Bell Bottom Blues, a Jersey band that captures music by Eric Clapton. This includes his solo career and his work in bands like Cream, Blind Faith and Derek And The Dominoes. Here’s one of my favorite Cream tunes, White Room,  from Wheels Of Fire, Cream’s third studio album released in August 1968.

Bob Burger & Friends played a great Tom Petty tribute set. Burger is a singer-songwriter, who according to his website has about 40 published songs to his credit. He has opened for other artists like Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Hootie And The Blowfish and Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes. Among others, Burger was joined by some of his band mates from The Weeklings, a tribute to The Beatles that apart from renditions plays originals inspired by The Fab Four. Here’s Refugee, which Petty recorded with The Heartbreakers for their excellent third studio album Damn The Torpedoes from October 1979.

Next up: CSN Songs, a great tribute to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. On their website, the seven-piece band characterizes itself as the only national CSN&Y tribute show of its kind. CSN Songs does a beautiful job at replicating CSN&Y’s four-part harmony vocals. Here’s their rendition of Woodstock, the classic Joni Mitchell tune CSN&Y recorded for their second album Déjà Vu that came out in March 1970.

The last band I’d like to highlight is Best Of The Eagles (BTOE). Previously, I had seen a couple of other Eagles tribute bands. While they were pretty good, BTOE has been the best so far. According to their website, BTOE were founded in 2012 by guitarist/vocalist Joe Vadala and a group of professional New Jersey musicians. In addition to Eagles songs, they also played Don Henley and Joe Walsh solo tunes, including a blistering rendition of Rocky Mountain Way. Here’s their take of Witchy Woman from the Eagles’ eponymous debut album released in June 1972.

During the current concert series the Light of Day Foundation aims to reach the $5.5 million mark in total fundraising. The schedule of remaining LOD Winterfest 2019 events is here.

Sources: Light of Day Foundation website, Wikipedia, The Bell Bottom Blues Facebook page, Bob Burger website, CSN Songs website, Best Of The Eagles website, YouTube