Saturday, June 15, 2019

Little Steven And The Disciples Of Soul - Alcatraz, Milan, 13 June 2019

Whisper it, but while the Boss may still be the Boss, it’s his consigliere Steve Van Zandt who’s delivering the more vibrant musical experience these days.  This is the third time I’ve seen Little Steven and Co over the last couple of years, and each time the result has been the same – an uplifting spiritual victory for Stevie’s patented soul revue extravaganza.
Partly this is a matter of location.  While nowadays Bruce chooses to contend with the compromises born of performing in stadia, Van Zandt is able to play in venues on a human scale, where the music can envelop the audience and more easily create an emotional connection. God knows what the economics are of a 15-piece band playing internationally to crowds of around 2-3,000, but whether the gig is in Glasgow’s O2 Academy or Milan’s Alcatraz, artistically it works like a dream.
Little Steven and the gang - no Monochrome Set here!
This time around of course, the show is based around the Disciples’ new album Summer Of Sorcery, and by that I mean all of it, not just the token couple of tracks your typical heritage act might venture.
Steve Van Zandt, y’see, isn’t just a great assimilator, synthesiser and regurgitator of all that is great in American rock’n’roll.  He is a man with a vision.  And that vision is to reawaken in his audience the cultural memory of the heady, youthful innocence and optimism of classic rock’n’roll, soul, pop - whatever you want to call it - but seasoned with awareness of the real world stuff that still needs to be confronted.  As the lyrics of ‘Summer Of Sorcery’ itself put it, “I want to get lost in your festival of unlimited possibilities, I want to be transformed by your summer of sorcery.” And by the time he’s singing this, near the end of the show, you can bet your sweet ass that the audience want the same thing.
It really don’t matter which songs you pick, they’re all pulling in the same direction.  Maybe it’s the swoon-worthy Detroit soul melody of ‘Love Again’, one of the highlights of the new album, with which Van Zandt tells the audience they’re “about to be transported to summer”.
(Not a difficult proposition in sun-drenched Italy, it has to be said.)  Maybe it’s the pseudo-harpsichord intro from Lowell “Banana” Levinger, leading to the great slab of a riff that ushers in the horn-heavy ‘I Visit The Blues’, which he introduces with a spiel about there not being any Beach Boys and so no summer (“Gabeesh?”) without the guy who discovered California - said guy, he bizarrely suggests, being Sir Francis Drake.  Maybe it’s his Eighties belter ‘Los Desparicidos’, featuring a scything guitar intro from Marc Ribler, a heap of arm-flailing supplication from the girls on backing vox, and tour de force Latino percussion from Anthony Almonte. Maybe it’s ‘Party Mambo’, with its pointed reference to Puerto Rico being deserted in its hour of need, with its horn contest at stage front and the girls going heavy on maracas.
Sha-la-la - with added arm-flailing supplication
You get the picture? Alcatraz may be little more than a big shed, but the Disciples Of Soul turn it into the house party you always dreamed of.
And you know what? You don’t even really need the visuals. Sure, there’s the day-glo backdrop. There’s ivory tinkler Andy Burton out front soloing on one of those keyboard-pretending-to-be-a-guitar contraptions with freaky all black keys.  There’s the three girls with wild, wild hair taking very, very seriously their contractual responsibility to go certifiably fucking nuts on a regular basis. But none of that matters.  Because you could close your eyes and still be immersed in a mythical soundtrack of mid-Sixties America, on some crappy radio in your bedroom, that in reality you probably never experienced at the time.  This, friends, is indeed a form of musical alchemy.
And by the way, those girls aren’t just eye candy.  You want Motown sha-la-las, Vandellas-like shoop-shoops, or Etta James like solo contributions?  Jessica Wagner, Sara Devine and Tania Jones got ‘em for ya.  Gabeesh??
There’s a great triplet of Van Zandt/Springsteen tunes “to express gratitood to Southside Johnny,” and “to keep the royalties comin’ in for Bruce, ‘cause he needs ‘em”, including the magnificent funky soul of ‘Trapped Again’, with another great solo from Van Zandt’s very own consigliere Ribler.  But ‘Love On The Wrong Side Of Town’ is something else, with the crowd singing along to its Searchers-like riff, and its Ronette-esque backing vocals and sax solo combining to encapsulate all of the Phil Spector soul you ever imagined. And after it finishes
Just how cool is that guitar?
an ongoing crowd singalong prompts Van Zandt to start strumming his guitar again, and lead the band in what might even be an improvised extra turn around the block. (Though I’m betting it takes a lot of rehearsal to look this spontaneous.)
Steve introduces ‘I Am A Patriot’ with commentary about the universal language of politics being bullshit, and about false dichotomies suggesting you can’t be both a patriot and global citizen.  But just as relevant is the wild rock’n’roll of ‘Superfly Terraplane’, with the girls dancing fit to bust as he sings that “you can stick your Second Amendment up your ass”, in addition to getting down big time on lead guitar – something he should do more of, in my view.
By the time they get to the dance-percussion workout of ‘Bitter Fruit’, the Disciples Of Soul have become a demolition crew smashing your inhibitions, and happiness is defined as dancing the night away at a Little Steven gig with your, er, baby.
And so it goes down the stretch, through a wild ‘Soul Power Twist’, the call to arms of ‘Sun City’, and the anthemic ‘Out Of The Darkness’, until they’re gone and we’re all drifting away.
And then, at the risk of over-sharing, I’m washing my hands in the Gents when I hear a cheer, and then a guitar chord.  Meanwhile, back in the hall, my other half is taking a pic of a trio of gleeful guys with their backs to the stage, when she points over their shoulders as she sees the band reappear.  And I’m scurrying back towards the stage along with half the audience, as the Disciples Of Soul break into ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’.  And we all try to reach up and touch the sky . . .

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