On the day Little Steven Van Zandt chose to discuss “Soulfire,” his first solo album in 18 years, longtime pal and E Street leader Bruce Springsteen released the furiously anti-Trump rocker, “That’s What Makes Us Great,” a song more scathing than any in the Boss’ catalog.
“You’re making news with me,” says Van Zandt, chuckling as he confesses to not having heard the version (the song was written by Joe Grushecky) or even that his friend was up to such harsh political rhetoric. “It’s funny and ironic considering that he and I have pretty much switched places from where we both started — him being the more moderate socially concerned one and me being the more direct, specifically political one back then. We have definitely reversed roles.”
The Boston-born, honorary New Jersey-an (as much for his time acting on HBO’s “The Sopranos” as Springsteen’s de facto bandleader and occasional co-producer) spent the 1980s making some of rock’s most furiously and politically charged music with 1982’s Men Without Women and 1984’s Voice of America, both precursors to Van Zandt’s 1985 creation of the music-industry activist group Artists United Against Apartheid (U2, Pete Townshend, and Bob Dylan were but three of its members) and the battle cry “Sun City” with the South African Sun City resort as its primary target.
“We shut down an entire government,” he says of playing a major role in the international effort to overthrow apartheid. “Changed a way of thinking. That made me dangerous, and not necessarily in a good way. I think corporations — you know, like record companies — wondered if I might not attack them next.” Van Zandt believes that it is this that made him, momentarily, a bit of a wild card, and even a pariah. “I was becoming a really great frontman, and at a time when those were few-and-far-between. The records were successful. I had five, six labels interested in signing me for my next album. I do ‘Sun City’ and suddenly the labels disappeared.”
It is not as if Van Zandt is any less political now than he was in his past. It’s just that, presently, he sees bigger issues of climate change and monetary inequality (for women, to close the disparity between the classes) to be the demons at the gate, rather than one man or one party (“Trump is just a distraction, the problems go far beyond him and the Republicans”).
With that, Van Zandt is moving toward a deep and passionate part of his past and now his future, with “Soulfire” (co-released May 19 via his Wicked Cool label, Big Machine and Ume) and his makeshift band of “roustabouts,” the 15-piece Disciples of Soul.
“Soulfire” is born of the brassy Jersey Shore “soul horns-meet-rock ‘n’ roll guitars” sound of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes whose tunes Van Zandt wrote and produced, such as their signature “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and the 1976 album of the same name, 1977’s “This Time It’s for Real,” 1978’s “Hearts of Stone,” and the Jukes’ 1991 comeback album, “Better Days.”
“That driving sound, for me, was inspired first by all things Motown, secondly by Stax — the Memphis and the Muscle Shoals scenes — then there’s New Orleans and Allen Toussaint. You got Curtis Mayfield records, then the whole Southern rock sound of Delaney & Bonnie. That’s the rock meeting soul thing I’m talking about, the elements that helped us when we started the whole Southside Johnny thing. When I did this gig last year — my first solo in some time with the Disciples — for a blues fest in London, I began thinking, ‘Who I am? Who do I want to be now?’ And I think that soul-rock thing that I went back to suited me best. It felt right. And now it feels as if I am my own genre.”
Not only does “Soulfire”offer up blistering new versions and raw R&B-driven arrangements of yearning Southside Johnny songs such as “I’m Coming Back,” “Some Things Just Don’t Change” (“I wrote it with David Ruffin and The Temptations in mind”), and “Love On The Wrong Side of Town” co-written with Springsteen (“He had the first riff and I did the rest, that’s my version of songwriting collaboration, not the romantic Brill Building ideal”), “Soulfire,” allows Van Zandt a chance to experiment for the first time with the blues, jazz, doo wop and other sounds.
Then there’s the title track, co-written with Anders Bruus of The Breakers, one of the punk-ish bands that Van Zandt plays on his Underground Garage radio show on Sirius/XM. “That rough sound is me, too,” says Van Zandt. “I’m like ten different guys. There’s quite a bit going on here – some stuff I do well, some stuff I’ve never done and wanted to try. I found it all to be a wonderful exercise that paid off artistically. I wanted to do me — cover me — and I did. That’s very satisfying. I’m gonna keep doing me too.”