When we last spoke with singer-guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, the timing was perfect. He was not only re-launching his long dormant solo career but also bringing the full package — a gargantuan 15-piece band out onto the road to replicate what he had done in the studio for 2017’s Soulfire
. The album, a wonderfully retro trip through the back pages of his past work, revisited his solo catalog, collaborations with artists he had worked with and produced over the years, and even some previously unreleased songs.
The project grew out of something which was supposed to be a one-off gig in London. Instead, Van Zandt, in the process of rehearsing the retrospective setlist of material, heard something that “sounded like an album right away” and took advantage of the momentum and went straight into the studio to capture the album that he was hearing in his head. So naturally, when it came time to promote the album itself, he wasn’t going to skimp and just take a handful of players out on tour. “[We] gotta reproduce this record, and it’s a big sounding record,” he told us at the time. And let’s think about this — if you’re going to call your band the Disciples of Soul, why stop at only 12 disciples when you could bring 15?
The Soulfire tour was a rock history lesson that thankfully has been captured and documented with the recently released Soulfire Live!
album, a three-disc extravaganza which will be followed by a vinyl edition at the end of this year and early next year and a Blu-ray of the whole show plus a bonus performance captured at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
As we learned, there’s plenty more music on the way — Van Zandt has plans for a new album that will arrive as soon as next year (“I’m writing it right now,” he says during a recent phone interview). This week, he returns to Hard Rock Live
, where he performs at 8 p.m. on Friday.
On the Soulfire Live! album, you talk about the unexpected magic that five kids found in the early days of race records and R&B, standing around on a street corner, harmonizing together. At another point, when you were talking about Southside Johnny, you talked about the days where you’re writing songs and not sure where it’s all going. In both cases, there was an innocence that as you say, you can never go back to. For you personally, when you look back, what do you remember feeling as you were writing those early songs?
You know, you had that same joy of creativity and the joy of collaboration, which is exciting. It’s its own reward, first of all. When a band comes together on a song, it goes directly to your bloodstream. It goes directly to your soul. It has a certain satisfaction to it, that kind of feeling and that kind of satisfaction, you cannot get by yourself. So it immediately translates as this sort of...it’s an intangible [thing]. You can’t predict it, really. We’re always trying to make art into a science. The better you get at your craft, obviously, the more magic happens. But you know, no matter how good you get at the craft, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, it’s always magic. It’s always a little miracle when something comes together like that. When a great song gets written, every song you write, is like your last. It feels like, “Wow, how did I do that?” You don’t really know! [Laughs] So that magic, I think, takes place in every garage and every little rehearsal hall. It starts off with a song and you get a little bit excited and a little bit of that satisfaction when you write a good song, but you don’t really get it until the band plays it. And then, it becomes something bigger, because it’s three, four or five guys, all contributing something that obviously you could never do by yourself. It has that same excitement to this day. Not only with the Jukes, when I was just starting to write songs, but that goes right through to today.
I would call Southside Johnny a vocal muse for you in the days where you were producing his records. And his voice really has the perfect cadence for those songs that you were writing at that time. What was it like developing that collaboration?
It was doubly exciting because Southside was known as this crazy local guy who nobody would have bet on to make it to the record business, because he was just, crazy. You couldn’t really picture him in any kind of normal situation that was going to require a consistent business mind. He was a pure blues R&B local guy. It was a risky move to use him in that way. I just felt like it was time to do something like that. It just felt like with everything starting to become glam and the business was really starting to kick in as an industry. There started to be a little distance between what you’re playing and the shows you’re putting on. That whole theatricality was starting to come in with the whole glam thing and Bowie and all of that stuff. It just felt like, we need to try to bring things back to what moved us when we grew up. There was a dividing line at that point, you were either going to go traditional or you were going to [be] modern. I just never related to the modern world, even then. That’s continued pretty consistently. [Laughs] And I don’t mean that as a value judgement, I really don’t. I never would put anything down. And God bless anybody who is in the modern world, having a success. That’s wonderful. But it’s just your own, what do you feel? Do you feel you want to keep up with the modern trends and be fashionable and be a modern person? Or do you want to participate in this tradition that has gone back as far as the eye can see and can continue as far as the eye can see into the future? That’s a decision that I think you make, I really do. I think at some point, everybody makes that decision. Yes, I want to be commercial and sell records and get rich and be famous and be modern? [Laughs] You know? Or, I want to make great music. And that’s all that I care about, really. I’m saying we make that decision, I’m not even sure we have the capability to make that decision. Maybe it’s already made for us. You know what I mean? Maybe it’s in our DNA. I don’t know. All I know is I made that decision to go with him, because he was real. And real was beginning to not be cool. It was no longer cool to be real! [Laughs] I mean, of course, Bruce [Springsteen] was going against that to some extent. But he brilliantly found a way to combine the two things and bring a bit of cinematic quality to what he was doing while at the same time, keeping a real good grip on tradition. So he was a completely unique hybrid. But Johnny was pretty much straight ahead back to the roots. We said, “That’s what we’re going to do and let’s do our own version of tradition, which in its own way, is going to be new.” It’s going to be modern in its own way, but it’s not going to be modern in the way that the industry looks at modern. So that’s what that we did.
It’s great that this live record is out there because as you’ve done with Underground Garage over the years, there’s so much historical information that you impart to the audience within this evening of music. It’s cool to have the stories that you’re sharing on this record documented.
I think it turned out good. It turned out to be a really good representation of a little bit of my history and that was the whole idea of the Soulfire
album and it was just expanded now on the live album to include a lot of things that were part of my first couple of decades. Then taking into consideration the fact that I pretty much abandoned it, it was nice to revisit all of that and have a little bit of closure so that it could be continued. It wouldn’t have made sense to come back, I think, into the music business suddenly and start making records out of the blue and not address the fact that I had this rather rich past that I myself had unintentionally abandoned. It needed to be revitalized and revisited, I think. I think we accomplished that. By the end of this year, I think we will have accomplished that. We will have just said, “Okay, let me introduce you to this guy, Little Steven, who was and is a songwriter and a singer and an arranger and a producer and a guitar player that maybe had some things that you didn’t know about him.” So you know, that’s how you’ve got to look at it. You’ve got to look at like you’re starting over again.
You’ve got Lowell Levinger in your band, from the Youngbloods, the “man of a thousand instruments” as you call him. How did you connect with Lowell and how does he end up in this band?
That’s the miracle of the year. One of my favorite bands of all time and there’s this blues festival called Notodden in the middle of Norway, in the middle of nowhere. I went to this festival and he was playing. I hadn’t heard his name in all of these years and I was just amazed that he still existed. I met him and he’s just a wonderful guy and the timing was [right]. I was just starting to put the band together and think about doing this thing. I said to him, “Listen, by some chance, what are you doing next year?” He said, “I’ve got some things.” But he said, “Nothing that steady.” I said, “Well, do you want to be my piano player?” He was immediately into it. And that was it. It really made my year, because he’s one of my absolute heroes and that first Youngbloods album is one of the 10 great debut albums of all time as far as I’m concerned. I mean, it’s got seven classic songs on it. And the other four are great, also! You know, it’s one of those albums.
What was it like jamming this big band onto the stage of the Cavern Club? It’s not the original club, but that still had to be something.
[Laughs] That was something, man. It was a fluke-y kind of idea that I had. I said, “Have there been any lunchtime sessions since the Beatles and everybody couldn’t remember. Even the people who worked there, I don’t think they’ve done it since. So I just said, “You know what, let’s have some fun.” We went in there and they rebuilt the Cavern close to where it was. The first time I went to Liverpool to find, you know, mecca, I got the address of the Cavern, and I went there, and it was a parking lot!
Yeah, they had paved it over! [Laughs] I swear to God. There was no evidence that the Beatles were ever in Liverpool the first time I went. Now, they’ve regained their senses and of course, everything is, it’s Beatles this and Beatles that, which is how it should be. It occurred to them that maybe there’s something in tourism that might be interested in where the Beatles came from. [Laughs] They rebuilt the Cavern with supposedly a lot of the same bricks — you know, whatever. But it was very close to where it was. They built the main room that was the Cavern, it’s very similar. But then they also connected it to a second room which is bigger and that’s where Paul McCartney played when he went there. So they said, “You can play the big room,” and I was like, “No, no no. I want to play the one that looks like the video of them doing ‘Some Other Guy’!” You know, the famous video that everybody’s seen of them playing that one song. It’s ridiculous, you can’t fit four people on that stage, but right next to the stage, there’s a walkway back to a dressing room storage place, so we put the horns and girls, like off the stage, onto the floor and put the rest of our band on the actual stage. So we couldn’t see the horns or girls. [Laughs] You’re going to hear it and it turned out good. But it was just a fun thing.