(5 / 5)
The legendary Mr Steven Van Zandt aka Little Steven, drops his first solo album for almost two decades, re-working songs spanning his entire career. Revisiting songs that span the length of his career as artist, performer, producer, arranger, and songwriter, focusing directly on the hugely influential “soul horns-meet-rock ‘n’ roll guitars” approach he first pioneered on Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ classic first three albums.
He says he has “very little interest in the modern world” so his only criteria is “greatness”. That’s all he cares about. “Is what I’m doing reaching for greatness?” he asks himself. Whether he achieves it or not, that is one hundred percent of his criteria. A risky strategy. Does it pay off with “Soulfire”? Hell yeah. This is the mother of all solo come-backs. A sheer triumph. Mr VZ never sounded so mighty, or so soulful.
I have to admit something here; I have never been a big Springsteen fan or heavily into that whole Asbury Park sound. I know, shocking revelation, eh? So, Stevie’s solo output in the past has somewhat passed me by. Not any more. What is startling to me, is the depth and versatility of his vocal across this record. Yes, there are a few tracks where you could replace his vocal for the boss, and there’d not be much difference. But in the main, he is chameleon-like and as versatile as you can get with the vocal styles.
This Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, E Street Band guitarist, and star of the US gangster TV drama The Sopranos is instantly recognisable with his core sound and style on the opener, the title track. As cool as cool can be. Brassy, Motown-soulful vibes, a big sound and a crunching guitar break. Gravelly vocals well on point. Infectious hook. A great start and well worth a two-decade wait. At this point, I hope the record is all as strong as this.
An apt title next, with “I’m Coming Back”. Very much Springsteen and E Street Band sound. A powerful, commercial cut which would make a good single with a minute shaved off it. Originally found on Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes’ 1991 LP, “Better Days”. A departure for Stevie with this next one: “The Blues Is My Business”. A 2003 Etta James cut. Big ballsy horns and that polished BB King big band sound. It’s also Gary Moore and very much Albert King territory on guitar. The guitar licks are mighty, the vocal not quite as strong as the two previous tracks.
Pickett, Sledge, Rodgers, “The Boss”…….
“I Saw The Light” kicks off with some cowbell on a horn-soaked rocker. The backing vocals add value as they do across this entire album. It’s got a Graham Parker & The Rumour and Southside Johnny feel to this track. But Steven wrote it with Richie Sambora & Orianthi in mind, but they never got to record it. “Some Things Just Don’t Change”. Mid-tempo with a soulful, passionate, raspy vocal. It builds nicely and would have been a fit for the likes of Wilson Pickett or Percy Sledge, Paul Rodgers or even “the Boss”. Originally found on the 1977 album, “This Time It’s For Real” from Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. Superb performance from Steven and a superb song.
“Love On The Wrong Side Of Town”. It’s an epic. Piano, strings and a big, big trademark E Street / Springsteen sound. A really wonderful vocal and a killer song. Penned by Steven and “The Boss”, also appearing on Southside’s “This Time It’s For Real”. Shivers down the spine time. Love to hear this live with an orchestra behind him. Almost Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production values….Very neat key change. Could imagine this being sung by one of those 60s girl groups, like the Ronettes.
“The City Weeps Tonight”. Another 60s or even 50s vibe. Doo wop style. Slow ballad, killer backing vocals, and Steven’s vocal is sublime. Intended to be on Steven’s first solo record, but it has remained unfinished for all these years, until now. A ‘Wow moment. Have some fun at your next house party and offer up a bottle of booze to whoever can name the singer. “Down And Out In New York City”. Blaxploitation mood. Flute, wah wah, muted horns all setting the scene………Isaac Hayes’ territory. The vocal fits like a glove. Very cool trombone solo precedes the trumpet’s turn. At six minutes and 27 seconds long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. Originally recorded on James Brown’s 1973 “Black Caesar” soundtrack, and this one not penned by Steven.
“Standing In The Line Of Fire” has that Spaghetti Western soundtrack vibe to it and is also VERY Springsteen. Co-written with Gary U.S. Bonds and (L.) Anderson, originally found on Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1984 album, “Standing In The Line Of Fire”. The first cut to be lifted from the album as a single, “Saint Valentine’s Day” is a rockin’, commercial affair. Steven wrote it for Nancy Sinatra, who never did record it, and it was later cut by The Cocktail Slippers, and used on a movie soundtrack. Horns added to this version to make it more of a soul thing.
Steven’s classic “I Don’t Want To Go Home” which is found on Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes’ 1976 debut LP of the same name, was the first song Steven ever wrote, and back then he used The Drifters as a template. Intending the song to be cut by Ben E. King, but confessing today that he didn’t have the courage to pitch it to him! Great sing-a-long hook. The album ends on a high with “Ride The Night Away”. Co-written with drummer and producer Steve Jordan and originally found on Jimmy Barnes’ 1985 LP, “For The Working Class Man”, later recorded for Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes’ 1991 album, “Better Days”.
Not one single track out of place on this album. A dozen top quality offerings that prove this guy is not just a sideman to a superstar. He’s a true artist in his own right, and for me; Springsteen owes a huge debt of gratitude to this cool cat for the songs and the style and attitude injected into his own career. You could say this is an album of covers, but it is SVZ covering SVZ. He made his first solo record with his band The Disciples of Soul in the 1980s, but back then, his vocal was not as on point as his guitar playing and his song writing. It bloody well is now. Sounds like two different guys between then and on this gem.
London Bluesfest started it all off again for Steven the solo artist……………
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul made their long-awaited return last October, prompted by a friend’s request to perform at London’s BluesFest 2016. Van Zandt had only just returned home from The E Street Band’s summer stadium run, but his autumn plans already included a trip to the UK to celebrate both his wife’s birthday and his friend Bill Wyman’s 80th. Little Steven quickly put together a Disciples of Soul for the 21st century, complete with three backing vocalists and a full horn section currently featuring original Asbury Jukes/Miami Horns saxophonists Stan Harrison (tenor) and Eddie Manion (baritone). Stevie and his 15-piece big band crossed the Atlantic and blew the roof off London’s indigo at The O2, with what was supposed to be just a “one-night-only” performance. But the flame was lit, and he decided to make an album with the same line-up.
The album was arranged and produced by Van Zandt at his own Renegade Studios in New York City, co-produced and recorded by Grammy-winning Geoff Sanoff (Fountains of Wayne, Stephen Colbert) and co-produced and music directed by guitarist Marc Ribler. Mixed and mastered by Van Zandt’s career-long collaborators and friends Bob Clearmountain (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who, Bryan Adams), and Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Band, Sly and the Family Stone).
Van Zandt – who will remain a touring and recording member of The E Street Band – is now touring with his own big band and well up for visiting as many towns, cities and countries as he can. “I’m back into it,” Little Steven says. “And this time I’m going to stay back.” Thank goodness for that.
One could say this is a concept album. Yeah…the concept being, Steven asking himself, “Who am I?” He answers that question loudly and very succinctly across this, his sixth solo album. An album that really does not sound like a dusty trip down self-indulgent street or memory lane. No. Retro? Old school? Maybe. But there’s a palpable modern-day urgency about it, which somehow makes this record and Steven very, very relevant. Welcome back.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’