The curtain parts, a rumble of drums and burst of chords heralds the appearance of the Disciples Of Soul, and before Steve Van Zandt can even shuffle his way to the front of stage, the audience are on their feet. The Whitley Bay Playhouse may be a compact but bijou venue, but as Little Steven kicks off with Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’ the night is made for dancing.
What follows is a two and a half hour show that’s equal parts Stax Soul Revue, grand tour of rock’n’roll history, and – as the main man himself puts it – spiritual nourishment through live music.
|Steve Van Zandt preaches spiritual nourishment|
And that’s not a grand claim. Just a few songs in they serve up Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, which not only features a 100% grabber of a hook, but is a platform for no less than six – count ‘em, six – different instrumental breaks kicking off with Andy Burton’s organ, and taking in guitars, piano, sax, and all action trombone from Clark Gayne. But here’s the thing, every one of these solos serves the song, and they’re all fun rather than exhibitions of self-indulgence. After a sublime key change they could almost pack in right there and it would still be worth the ticket.
Except of course they don’t stop there. It’s all so intense at one stage the backing singers JaQuita May, Sara Devine and Tania Jones take advantage of a solo to cool themselves off in front of fans next to the keyboards. The ladies are dancing queens of a wholly different stripe from the usual repetitive groovers, though they’ve evidently been developing more co-ordinated moves since last autumn. Not sure I approve of that mind you – I like ‘em best at their most non-conformist. Still, they add bucketfuls of snap, crackle and pop to the show, and Ms May is still “hotter’n a fox in a forest fire”, as another musical Van Zandt might have put it.
|Hotter'n a fox in a forest fire in Whitley Bay|
‘Until The Good Is Gone’ is a tribute to the great radio days of Van Zandt’s youth, featuring wonderfully gospellated call and response vocals between him and the girls. ‘Under The Gun’ takes a very different road, with an Arabic intro worthy of Robert Plant leading into a pounding affair in which Steve and his guitar buddy Marc Ribler exchange ringing guitar chords a la Lizzy’s version of ‘Rosalie’, before a wild ending in which drummer Rich Mercurio goes certifiably nuts.
In between there’s ‘Angel Eyes’, which like the later ‘I Saw The Light’ seems almost like a throwaway at first, before turning into something immense. Moments like these almost sum up the paradox of great pop music, that it can seem ephemeral on the one hand and timeless on the other.
Along the way there are so many different ingredients added to spice up the menu, from the sublime Motown-esque melody on ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’ to the signature terrific horn riff on ‘St Valentine’s Day’ (on which Mercurio again shows that a drummer doesn’t need a solo to take the biscuit), from Morricone-style trumpet and guitar duet on ‘Standing In The Line Of Fire’ to the spot-on doo-wop arrangement of ‘The City Weeps Tonight’, and even the hard rocking of ‘Salvation’, on which the girls go wild.
There’s a slight dip in intensity with James Brown’s funk film theme ‘Down And Out In New York City’, as all five of the horn players take solo turns – all of which are fine in themselves, but which detract from the tension the song generates. That done, they take a breather for the subdued mandolin-and-accordion of ‘Princess Of Little Italy’.
|Disciples Of Soul - born to be wild|
From there on though, it’s like a bobsleigh ride of thrills and spills, starting with the great hook of the floor-shaking ‘Ride The Night Away’, and continuing with the Latino vibe of ‘Bitter Fruit’, on which Van Zandt cries “Mambo!” to usher in a percussion showcase from Anthony Almonte as a song of defiance turns into a celebration. ‘Forever’ ends the set proper, but although they take a bow they go straight into the encores, and then they bring the house down when they “try something” with a stab of stop-time R’n’B which some of the Geordie locals go nuts immediately recognise as a hit by local Sixties heroes The Animals.
‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’ triggers a forest of hands in the air to greet the aspirational lines “I know we have to try, to reach up and touch the sky”. Most bands would struggle to top that, but Van Zandt still has ‘Out Of The Darkness’ up his sleeve. It’s an air-punching anthem for our times, and sums up perfectly Van Zandt’s philosophy of musical and social togetherness.
I love live music, but there are some shows that reach up to another level altogether, and this was one of them. If you were at this gig, and didn’t come out punch-drunk with enjoyment, and your face tired from smiling, then what the hell do you want from life?