While his “boss,” Bruce Springsteen is lighting up Broadway with an acclaimed one-man show, E-Street Band guitarist/consigliere Little Steven Van Zandt is rocking the Sunset Strip 3,000 miles away with his 15-piece Disciples of Soul band, performing a special showcase for music supervisors (he perform Thursday night at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles). The schmata-wearing rocker led the ensemble – complete with a five-man horn section and three shimmying female singers – through a selection of songs, mostly from “Soulfire,” his first solo album in some 18 years, which came out earlier this year on his Wicked Cool label (via Big Machine/UMe).
The record offers a retrospective of songs he’s written for the likes of Southside Johnny (“I’m Coming Back,” “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” “Love on the Wrong Side of Town”) and Gary U.S. Bonds (“Standing in the Line of Fire”) as well as well-chosen covers of songs performed by Etta James and James Brown. There are stylistic forays into the blues, doo-wop, blaxploitation, Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks and Motown. The album reflects Little Steven’s musical obsessions – American pop-soul from Leiber & Stoller, the Brill Building, Phil Spector and Motown – as reflected through the prism of the British Invasion, which forms the backbone of programming on his SiriusXM channel, “Underground Garage” (he also programs “Outlaw Country” for the company).
“I’ve never done a record like this before,” he tells Variety. “It’s another concept album, except this time it’s about me, where I come from, rather than politics.” Indeed, Van Zandt’s previous solo albums — as well as his 1985 Artists United Against Apartheid anthem, “Sun City” – were radical, Reagan-era statements exposing U.S. interference and involvement in foreign dictatorships. But “these days, politics are 24/7,” he says. “Everything is out in the open. I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump to anybody — he does it himself every single day. This album is about me as a singer, songwriter, guitar player, arranger and producer.”
The album reflects the ‘60s music that forged the bond between Steven and Springsteen, with both coming of age during a period when, on TV shows like “Shindig,” “Hullaballoo,” “American Bandstand,” “Hollywood Palace” and “Ed Sullivan” he’d see the Beatles and the Kinks back-to-back with Marvin Gaye and the Temptations.
“For the first time, there was a consciousness of rock bands,” he explains. “Before, there were doo-wop and singing groups like the Four Seasons, but these new acts were entirely different. I’d never heard of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley before that. These British bands were taking this orchestrated music and translating it into guitars, which was great because it was made accessible to young kids like me. It was white kids trying to sound black and failing wonderfully… the first time I saw Mick Jagger on ‘Hollywood Palace,’ not smiling, I realized, this is not show business, it’s a lifestyle, a culture.”
With a full slate that includes acting (he starred in, co-wrote, executive produced, music supervised and composed the score for “Lilyhammer,” Netflix’s first-ever original program), producing (a Broadway show featuring the Young Rascals and last year’s Darlene Love solo album), philanthropy (his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s “TeachRock” music education program) and, of course, his role in the E-Street Band, it’s no wonder Little Steven hasn’t performed as a solo artist in Los Angeles for nearly two decades.
“I’m really starting from scratch,” he says. “And I’m just going to stick with this for the next few years. It’s been a revelation to reconnect with my own music. Rock-meets-soul has become its own genre. It doesn’t fit in, not did it ever really fit in.”
Having done music supervision for “Lilyhammer” as well as David Chase’s 2012 feature, “Not Fade Away,” Little Steven is increasingly interested in that area of the business, hence this showcase arranged by UMe to have his music heard by TV and film execs. He continues to try to keep the torch burning for rock and soul music, even if he acknowledges the genre’s no longer part of the mainstream.
“There’s a reason why Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums,” he insists. “This music will not go the way of Glenn Miller and the big bands unless they invent new instruments. It’s going to continue to resonate through modern culture.”
As for his day job, Little Steven says Bruce and the E-Street Band will continue to tour every other summer with no end in sight, even if Springsteen gets involved in other endeavors. And yes, he attended a preview and opening night of “Springsteen on Broadway” and came away impressed.
“Even though I know the story, it didn’t make me appreciate it any less,” he says. “The way he presented it was very artful, moving and poetic, with the philosophy behind his words and music made clearer by being put in context. It’s an amazing experience to see him bare his soul in a way few artists have ever done. It’s great to see him finding new ground and a new way to express himself at this point in his life — that’s not easy to do.”