Steve Van Zandt has become a household name over the last two decades thanks to his star making turns in television series The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, his Sirius XM Little Steven's Underground Garage radio station and as the consigliore to Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band. Before 1999, Van Zandt spent the majority of the 1990s in New York City out of public view despite being quite active. He inducted the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which inspired David Chase to cast him in The Sopranos), he continued to write and produce and occasionally appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman usually backing up Bon Jovi (whom he also toured Europe with in 1995). The 1990s followed a few decades of concentrated non-stop work. Besides touring and recording as Bruce Springsteen's right hand man from 1975-1982, Van Zandt also helmed a trio of albums for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes producing and writing the majority of those albums during the same time period. In the early 1980s, he helped write and produce three albums for Gary U.S. Bonds and expanded his production duties to himself where he would record four solo records before decade's end. While his first album, Men Without Women paralleled the rhythm, blues and soul templates he worked on with Southside Johnny, his viewpoints become more politicized with blistering and biting commentaries on the world at large between 1984 and 1999. The commercial and social awareness peaked with Sun City a compilation album designed to be a protest against apartheid.
During the 1990s, Little Steven Van Zandt was in hibernation, occasionally emerging to remind the world of his reedy vocals, powerful musical arrangements and no-nonsense production skills. He began the decade by reuniting with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes for the superb Better Days album before he produced a pair of songs for Christopher Columbus films ("The Time of Your Life" for Nine Months and "All Alone on Christmas" from Home Alone 2). One of the most underrated and primal records of the 1990s was a Michael Monroe project entitled Demolition 23, which never received an official release in the States, it served as a reminder that Van Zandt was always a believer in the power of rock n' roll. A decade before he launched his Sirius XM radio show extolling the virtues of fuzzy no-nonsense arrangements around the bass, guitar and drums, he was practicing what he preached on these recordings.
While I love the fact Van Zandt is a household name due to his post-1999 career, I have missed the singular extension of his soul. Van Zandt was always more than a confidant and contributor, but a dynamic artist of the highest order. "Out of the Darkness", "Forever", "Until the Good Is Gone", "Solidarity", "I Am a Patriot", "Undefeated", "The Time of Your Life", "Salvation" and "Born Again Savage" are eternal heart songs for me, enveloping skirmishes in the world personal and political. I once interviewed Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks and he told me that Van Zandt's 1984 album Voice of America was the album that inspired him to embark on a solo career in words that extend beyond love and admiration. Van Zandt's music, whether it's a solo recording or simply a song like "Shelter" which he wrote for Lone Justice, his songs have penetrated my soul and helped me understand the darkness while always striving for the light. I have missed this beacon over the last few decades. The wait is now over with the release of Soulfire, Van Zandt's first new album in eighteen years.
Soulfire is a joy of a record that ripples with vivacious Jersey shore sun, emanating from the broad and buoyant production. It encompasses sprightly horns, searing guitars and full-bodied arrangements that tip their hat to Phil Spector and his wall-of-sound. Instead of replicating the production, Van Zandt has lengthened the scope and sound of the Spector template into an album that is easily one of 2017's best. While the Underground Garage radio show on Sirius XM is essential to the survival of rock n roll as an art form, I can't help but feel his packed schedule kept him away from his greatest talents; arranging and producing. Listening to Soulfire I cannot help but yearn for a Steve Van Zandt production of a Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi album. He is one of our greatest living arrangers and producers and I can only hope he blesses other acts with his gift. Later this year, he will be producing a pair of songs on the forthcoming Soraia album, an Underground Garage staple from Philadelphia.
Soulfire serves as a reintroduction to the artist of Little Steven. This is Van Zandt's way of taking ownership of these songs some of which date back more than four decades. Comprised of covers, songs he wrote for other artists and a pair of new songs, Soulfire captures the essence of the soul horns and unyielding guitars on a songbook collage of what makes Van Zandt tick. "I'm Coming Back" from Southside Johnny's outstanding 1991 Better Days album ripples with emotion in a horn fueled jam of ecstasy. Van Zandt's vocals swell with force and history. This is his declaration to not just the music he loves, but to who he is as an artist. "Blues Is My Business", originally performed by Etta James, is the most ardent tribute to the soul he has done since the 1970s Southside Johnny records. Rippling with exuberant blues melodies where the music is so genuine the vocals take a backseat. "Some Things Don't Change" and "Love on the Wrong Side of Town" sound like the sky opening and serenading the world with soulful sunbeams. The drums snap with potency, the horns buzz and Van Zandt's vocals express forlorn love. "The City Weeps Tonight" is a tribute to doo-wop bands of the fifties that was intended for his first solo record but remained unfinished until Soulfire. "Down and Out in New York City" is one of the most distinctive songs he has ever laid down. A James Brown Blaxploitation cover is a reminder from a forgotten era capturing early 1970s R&B soul.
The album's triumph is "Saint Valentine's Day" which was originally written for the Cocktail Slippers (who may still have the definitive version) but it was also used luminously in David Chase's unappreciated Not Fade Away film capturing the quintessence of garage rock in the sixties in the wake of the Beatles. The collective performance of the band accentuates the touch of your first wet kiss, a musical awakening and an unscripted future. Van Zandt effortlessly emulates the daze of innocence as he taps into youthful dalliances. The crisp morning of Thanksgiving chills your spine, the fresh snow of Christmas morning dances with your dreams and the icy beginnings of New Year's Day crystallize in a perfect pop song. Van Zandt covers a lot of musical geography but on "Saint Valentine's Day" when the song reaches its conclusion, my palms are sweaty, my heart is thumping and I can feel a smile on my face. It feels like a song I have known and loved all my life.
Little Steven's Soulfire is a transcendent record that isn't consumed with four-minute radio hits but deeply personal music steeped in unembellished splendour that will shake, rattle and roll your soul. For a man past the halfway mark of his life, Van Zandt writes and sings as if it is still in front of him. He does not believe in giving up your dreams because he is still reaching for them and if he can reach up and touch the sky, we should too.
Get your copy here.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Little Steven - Soulfire