So towering is the legend of Springsteen that it’s easy to forget Steven Van Zandt is much more than The Boss’ consigliere.
As a songwriter and producer in the early ‘70s he helped pioneer the “soul horns meets rock ‘n’ roll guitars” Jersey Shore sound that Born To Run eventually introduced to the world. As an activist he’s taken on apartheid, US military meddling in the politics of Central America, and more recently the budget cuts facing school arts programmes.
As an actor he’s cornered the market on level-headed middle-aged mobsters. And as a radio host, he’s given listeners an in-depth understanding of American music’s evolution since the ‘50s.
On stage, Little Steven gets to play all those roles at once. Tonight, introduced by the legendary Dave Clark (of The Five fame) onto the historic Shepherd’s Bush Empire stage, he’s an open-hearted storyteller leading his audience through the origins of his rock ‘n’ soul sound by way of personal anecdotes and, of course, songs (his own and his idols’). And it’s all in aid of his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s TeachRock programme that creates free education materials for teachers.
Joking early on that he’s making up for all the grief he caused his high school teachers, Van Zandt has ironically become a bonafide educator himself. He speaks eloquently, and with all the skill of an experienced actor, about how doo-wop’s emphasis on singers’ voices (not their skin colour) challenged 1950s segregation laws, and taught white suburban kids like him to “dream bigger than our neighbourhood”.
He shares his obvious love of Motown and The Temptations (“the best singers with the best clothes and the best dance moves”), as an introduction to a glorious Technicolor rendition of Some Things Just Don’t Change, the song he was inspired to write by their singer David Ruffin.
He reminisces fondly about the “blaxploitation” genre of the early ‘70s that gave us the likes of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft and Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, before launching into a rousing take on his personal favourite, James Brown’s Down And Out In New York City.
During a casual conversation around Love On The Wrong Side Of Town, he reminisces about living with his old friends Bruce and Southside Johnny in Asbury Park at around the same time, living their dreams through the radio, and worrying that all the best songs had already been written (“We weren’t totally wrong,” he jokes).
And despite declaring that he’s leaving politics at the door (because there are no evils left to expose now that they’re all out in the open), a recurring theme is the unifying power of music. At one point he even promises: “Together we will find our way out of the darkness.” And you can’t help but believe the firebrand as he celebrates one emotionally charged song after another, with the help of his astounding backing band.
All 14 members of The Disciples of Soul, from the fiery six-piece horn section to the three sublime female backing singers (complete with perfectly choreographed dance moves), have as much appreciation for this music as the man up front. Whether it’s the steaming 10-minute version of Etta James’ The Blues Is My Business (featuring succinct solo spots for guitar, keys, organ, trombone, and saxophone) or a tight but euphoric I Saw The Light, the individually talented musicians form a cohesive unit who play as hard as they party. Regardless how complex the music – the Ennio Morricone-inspired Standing In The Line Of Fire is hardly a walk in the park – everybody’s having the time of their lives as they skip their way through a two and a half hour 25-song set.
It’s a diverse set that allows Van Zandt to continue the self-exploration that began on his 2016 album Soulfire, a collection he described at the time as “material that, when you added it all up, really represented me”.
There are the cover versions, including an urgent, garage rock take on U2’s Out Of Control (with updated Brexit-referencing lyrics), The Birds’ Say Those Magic Words (featuring the original’s singer, Ali McKenzie), and a loving tribute to The Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life in honour of Paul McCartney who showed up on stage at Van Zandt’s previous London gig.
There are the songs he wrote for others that he’s now reclaimed, like the irrepressible Soulfire (originally recorded by Denmark’s The Breakers), the horn-saturated Saint Valentine’s Day (written for Nancy Sinatra), and the oh-so-soulful Southside Johnny hit I Don’t Want To Go Home (inspired by The Drifters and Ben E. King).
And there are the Little Steven originals, revitalised by this magnificent band that, despite their brilliance, never overshadow the gutsy vocals and fiery playing of the E Street Band guitarist. Forever, lifted by the backing vocals of JaQuita May, Sara Devine, and Tania Jones, rejoices like a long-lost Motown hit. And the night’s final song, Out Of The Darkness, sounds even more optimistic than it did on 1984’s Voice Of America. That’s despite the scale of the troubles in the world outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire, further reinforcing Van Zandt’s message of music’s transformative power.
Review of Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 27th July 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk.