Onstage is a man who is a walking encyclopedia of scrappy, underdog American pop, a champion of the music of the urban outsiders. He’s also a singular guitarist and horn arranger. He’s backed by an 11-piece band, like he means business. And three backing singers too.
Oh yeah, the backing singers. Now, I’m not talking about some autopilot mannekins here. These are the sassiest trio you’re ever likely to come across. They're wearing violet silk thigh boots, and these ladies ain’t shrinkin’ from nothin’. To paraphrase a line from The Commitments, “Inspired management, Brother Steven”.
|Steve Van Zandt rides the night away
Yes friends, I am talking about Little Steven, aka Steve Van Zandt, here with his Disciples of Soul. And joking apart, he rightly tells us at one point that those singers are “dancing their asses off”, setting the tone for a night of sweaty R’n’B and soul and rock’n’roll that demands you shake your booty.
The set is based firstly around the material from new album Soulfire, before winding around to some stuff from his Eighties albums, but before getting to any of that Stevie leads them into the fray with a downright perfect rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘Even The Losers’.
‘I’m Coming Back’, originally crafted for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes before re-surfacing on the new album, has a classic Jukes style horn riff, a chorus so great that it seems simply inevitable, and a scything solo from Van Zandt – and is just one example of thunderous drumming from Rich Mercurio. Mercurio may work with just a small kit, but he is a veritable beast.
Thereafter Stevie punctuates the set with a guided tour of his inspirations. Highlights include the likes of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, featuring stabbing horns and a wild organ solo from Andy Burton, and ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’, on which he channels “the King of Despair”, David Ruffin, nailing the soul mood and the phrasing. There’s ‘The City Weeps Tonight’, a eulogy to post-war harmony groups on which the sheer passion of Van Zandt’s singing is apparent. Then in complete contrast there’s the restless funk of ‘Down And Out In New York City’. Originally recorded by James Brown for the movie Black Caesar, it features a succession of flute and horn solos, and a crescendo into which Austin Powers-garbed guitarist Marc Ribler casually slips a reference to the riff from ‘Hey Joe’.
|The Unshrinking Violets
Along the way there are other delights, like Van Zandt and Ribler ripping into a guitar duel on ‘Angel Eyes’, the irresistible horns on ‘I Saw The Light’ and Stevie uncorking an eyeballs out solo at one point to get everyone shakin' all over.
Down the stretch though, it’s an absolute melting pot of soul and New York punk and even reggae. At the outset he may have said with a twinkle in his eye that back in the Eighties he felt the need to do music about politics, but now there was no need so tonight would be “a sanctuary from politics”. Still, there’s no shaking the relevance of songs like ‘Solidarity’, with its haunting mid-section, as well as ‘I Am A Patriot’ and the Latin-inflected, floor-shaking rhythms of ‘Bitter Fruit’.
He throws in a couple of other Southside classics just for fun, with the rifferama of ‘Ride The Night Away’ and the romance of ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’. But there’s no way the night could end with anything other than ‘Out Of The Darkness’, with the crowd pumping their fists and in full voice.
Some folk say that nostalgia’s not what it used to be. But when Steve Van Zandt revisits his roots and his repertoire with a two hour show of anthemic soul like this, it doesn’t half take me back to my youth.