Little Steven | Soulfire
Eighteen years is a long time between albums. But Stevie Van Zandt has an excuse – or four. Apart from his acting gigs on ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Lilyhammer’, hosting the weekly radio show ‘Little Steven’s Underground Garage’, and working to restore music education in disadvantaged schools, he’s been a little busy as Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man.
After spending much of the past two decades, and as recently as February, out on the road in the E Street Band, the guitarist is now going it alone once more. And, quite fittingly, he’s chosen to do so with new recordings of songs that span his entire five-decade career as musician, songwriter, record label owner, arranger, and producer.
There are choice cuts from his time with Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes. Like the definitive version of the first song he ever wrote, the Ben E. King-influenced ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’, from 1976’s ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’. Or the Motown-minded ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’ and Springsteen co-write ‘Love On The Wrong Side of Town’ off the following year’s ‘This Time It’s For Real’. Even 1991’s ‘Better Days’, his first LP with the band in 15 years, gets a look in with the gleaming ‘I’m Coming Back’.
There are tracks originally penned for and recorded by his collaborators. Like the jubilant ‘Soulfire’ from the 2011 self-titled album he produced for Danish retro-rockers The Breakers and the hard-driving ‘Ride The Night Away’, co-written with Steve Jordan for Jimmy Barnes’ ‘For The Working Class Man’ LP. ‘Standing In The Line Of Fire’, the title track of Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1984 LP, gets a classy but visceral Ennio Morricone makeover, while ‘Saint Valentine’s Day’ (originally intended for Nancy Sinatra but ultimately recorded by The Cocktail Slippers) undergoes a brassy, soulful transformation.
There are cover versions, like an authentic take on Etta James’ ‘The Blues Is My Business (And Business Is Good)’ that truly lives up to the title and a surprisingly jazzy rendition of James’ Brown’s ‘70s classic ‘Down and Out in New York City’ that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tarantino soundtrack.
And there are songs that have never seen the light of day. Like the jubilant ‘I Saw The Light’, which started out as an anthem for Richie Sambora but was finished for ‘Soulfire’, and ‘The City Weeps Tonight’, the doo-wop ballad that Van Zandt had started writing for his first solo album over 35 years ago.
But no matter how old the songs, or the various genres they inhabit, they are unified by the performances of this new configuration of The Disciples of Soul. A 15-piece big band, complete with full horn section and row of backing singers, they deliver vivacious performances regardless of whether the material requires them to swing, shake, or rock out. So, although ‘Soulfire’ could easily have become a work of tired retrospection, Little Steven’s latest album is definitely rebirth, not rehash.