Little Steven – ‘Soulfire’ (Wicked Cool/UMG) Print E-mail
CD Reviews
Written by Mark Ashby   
Monday, 15 May 2017 05:00

Little Steven artworkIt’s been a long time since we have had the pleasure of enjoying a new “solo” album from the one and only Mr Steve Van Zandt. Eighteen years, to be exact. Not that he’s been sitting back, idly twiddling his thumbs and enjoying a pleasant retirement in the sun. Far from it. He has been a very busy man in the intervening period, continuing to tour the globe with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as well as writing with and for – and producing – up-and-coming young artists - and turning his hand to acting, to great acclaim, in hit TV series such as ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Lilyhammer’ (for which he also wrote the scores for all three seasons, as our Yank friends like to call them) and even radio presenting.


But, now, due a collision of well-timed circumstances, this week sees the release of his first totally original materal in nigh on two decades. The album had its gestation last October, when Little Steven (to give him his stage name) was persuaded to make a one-off appearance at the London BluesFest: Van had only just returned home from The E Street Band’s summer stadium run but, as luck would have it, his autumn plans already included a trip to the UK, to celebrate both his wife’s birthday and his friend Bill Wyman’s 80th.


“It was perfect circumstances coming together,” says Van Zandt, who quickly put together a Disciples of Soul for the 21st Century – “an ever-changing group of misfits, rogues, and roustabouts” - complete with three backing vocalists and a full horn section currently featuring original Asbury Jukes/Miami Horns saxophonists Stan Harrison and Eddie Manion. The next step was logical: “I thought, well, we’ve already learned 22 songs, maybe we should make an album.” And so, this new 15-strong band of disciples headed in SVZ’s own Renegade Studios in New York to record a collection of songs that feature, as the man himself says, “a couple of covers, a couple of new songs, and some of what I feel are the best songs I’ve written and co-written over the years. This record is me doing me.”


While Little Steven has never stuck purely to one style of music, always pushing himself and seeking to evolve as an artist, ‘Soulfire’ is instantly recognizable as the product of its creator, especially as he has turned the clock back and focussed once again on the soul horns-meets-rock ‘n’ roll guitars sound that he helped to pioneer during his tenure with Southside Johnny And The Asbury Dukes. And he proves that the fire is very much burning in his soul right from the opening bar of the kick off title track, with his funky riff, swelling organ and Van Zandt’s passion-filled gravelly vocal. Funny, there’s a Springsteen-style edge to its main mien (which is perhaps inevitable, given his close association with ‘The Boss’), as it moves between an edgy, almost punky, guitar line and a soulful backing track, complete with subdued horns and beautiful backing vocals.



‘I’m Coming Back’ states that he is most definitely doing just that, another spunky guitar line and soaring organ motif giving way to a hugely catchy melody, which has you almost singing the words before you’ve even heard them. It’s surprisingly laidback in its overall tone, but nevertheless sparks with the latent energy which permeates this entire album: and you can almost see the smile on SVZ’s as he glances over at his band before wrenching the neck off his guitar with a scorching solo. And there’s another right at the beginning of ‘The Blues Is My Business’, a cover of the Etta James song which he totally re-imagines and makes his own, adding a funk/soul vibe to the song’s underlying theme, before the Hammond dives straight into the first solo section and takes the song to another level: this blues business definitely is good – no, better than good, especially in the hands of a master craftsman such as Little Steven.


‘I Saw The Light’ is a glorious slice of upbeat blues-meets-soul that gets you clicking your fingers and swaying your hips: the horns really come into their own as they pump the song along, and the doo-wop backing vocals add just that added bouquet of elegance. Originally intended for Richie Sambora, I for one am glad Van Zandt decided to keep it for himself. ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’ – the first of two back-to-back tracks from The Asbury Duke’s 1977 ‘This Time It’s For Real’ album – is a nice slice of mellow Motown with a soulful vibe and a gentle rock ‘n’ roll kick, topped off with SVZ’s mournful vocal.


‘Love On The Wrong Side Of Town’, co-written with Springsteen, doesn’t change much from the original version, but where it does the alterations – such as the orchestration and the doo-wop vocal – are impressive in their subtlety. Van Zandt admits to being a massive style of the doo-wop style of singing, and it’s a style he explores still further on ‘The City Weeps Tonight’: the song was originally intended for Van Zandt’s first solo album (1982’s ‘Men Without Women’) until, as he says, “the concept changed and I got political”. Now finally finished, it’s an eerily apt tribute to the era of bands such as The Temptations and The Four Tops, with its close a cappella vocal harmony and the band stripped right down to the basics.



‘Down And Out In New York City’ is a slow jazzy funk ramble through the avenues and alleys of his native city: a faithful yet slightly altered interpretation of James Brown’s theme to the 1973 movie ‘Black Caesar’, it reflects SVZ’s love of the blaxplotation genre and shows just at ease he is when playing the styles of music that he loves, but that the listener may not initially expect him to explore, thus rendering the very personal nature of this album.


Taking us into the album’s final third, ‘Standing In The Line Of Fire’ sees Van Zandt experimenting once more, this time taking a song he co-wrote with soul star Gary U.S. Bonds and adding a piece of music he wrote for ‘Lilyhammer’, to give the song a Morricone-esque western feel while emulating the feel of the original, especially in its rumbling backbeat and subtle organ stabs. The lead single, ‘Saint Valentine’s Day’, was originally a straightahead rocker (recorded with The Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and subsequently hardened up for the ‘Not Fade Away’ soundtrack three years later): again, van Zandt twists it back on itself, taking its blue-collar origins and giving it a cocksure swagger with the addition of the horns in the bridge sections to produce a danceable anthem that ebbs and flows with a graceful ease.



‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’ – nope, neither do we Stevie boy – is actually the first song he ever wrote: “I wrote it for Ben E. King but then didn’t have the courage to give it him,” he recalls, adding that he had wanted to record it the way he’d originally imagined it – “a Drifters song”. And, again, there’s a massive Motown feel to the tune, with the magnificent horns and subtle backing vocals: and, again, the keys interject with little honkytonk touches that keep the rock ‘n’ roll credentials intact. Did I say rock ‘n’ roll just then? I did, and so does SVZ on rowdy closer ‘Ride The Night Away’: originally written for Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes, it’s a real foot stomper and fist pumper, with a punching riff and a stonking rhythm which powers the song along, as the man himself buries his guitar in the mix and lets the song do the singing for itself.


Steven Van Zandt may be “little” by name, but there is no doubt that he is a simply huge talent. ‘Soulfire’ showcases the breadth of his ability and creativity, his willingness and capability to cross genres and integrate them into each other with ease and aplomb. It may not be the hard rockin’ blues-fuelled return that many might have expected, but it’s an immensely enjoyable album – and it’s great to have him back, stretching his musical muscles in his own right. “I’m back into it… and this time I’m going to stay back,” says the man: well, sir, I’ll raise a cold one to that ‘cos it’s good to see and hear ya.


‘Soulfire’ is released on Friday (19 May). You can buy your copy HERE.


Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul return to Europe for a string of dates which include the Manchester Academy on Sunday 18 June and Vicar Street in Dublin on Thursday 22 June.


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