Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul Feature

Steve Van Zandt never expected that in 2019 he’d be in the midst of a two-year period that has produced two excellent new solo albums and returned him for the first time since the mid-1980s to the role of band leader – fronting a 15-piece band, no less.

“No one is more surprised than I am. I had no plan whatsoever,” Van Zandt said of this turn of events. “It just happened totally naturally. It’s a real gift for me.”

Quite literally, Van Zandt said, he had gone two decades without thinking about resuming his solo career. After leaving Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band following the recording of Springsteen’s chart-busting 1984 album, “Born in the U.S.A.,” Van Zandt wrote and recorded five solo albums (with a changing cast of musicians who populated his backing band, the Disciples of Soul), and that very much looked like it would be the end of his days as a recording artist.

“After I did the five albums, I kind of said what I wanted to say and learned what I wanted to learn,” the guitarist/singer said. “So I hadn’t even looked back. I hadn’t written a single song.”

Of course, Van Zandt was anything but idle after his first five solo albums. In 1999, he landed his role as Silvio Dante on the hit HBO series, “The Sopranos.” That role lasted until 2007 and he then went on to star in, co-write and compose music for the multi-award-winning series “Lilyhammer,” which aired in America on Netflix and completed a three-season run in 2015.

He also rejoined the E Street Band when Springsteen put the legendary group back together in the late 1990s. Then there was Van Zandt’s major role in guiding two popular radio programs – the syndicated Little Steven’s Underground Garage (which he launched in 2002), as well as the Sirius Satellite Radio version of that program, and the Outlaw Country channel, also on Sirius. He also started his own label, Wicked Cool Records, in 2006, signing and releasing albums by several garage-rock-oriented acts in the years since.

Chances are Van Zandt would never have added doing solo albums and tours to his slate of activities if not for some serendipity.

A couple of years ago, Van Zandt and his wife were invited to the 80thbirthday party for former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman in London. Van Zandt happened to connect with a friend prior to the trip and discovered his friend was holding a blues festival the same week as Wyman’s party. The friend invited Van Zandt to put together a band to play the festival. He decided to accept the offer.

“Now how weird is that? Just the amount of coincidence that had to take place,” Van Zandt said. “And you know, it (playing the blues festival) just sounded like fun. I hadn’t done it in 25 years. But I said ‘You know what, I’m going to give it a shot.’”

The gig prompted Van Zandt to reacquaint himself his ‘80s solo albums for the first time in some two decades, and he liked what he heard. Before long, he was putting together a 15-piece band, complete with horns, and recording a selection of covers and original songs Van Zandt had written over the years for other artists for what became his 2017 album, “Soulfire.”

As touring behind that album unfolded, Van Zandt began to work his way back into writing songs, a process that resulted in the release earlier this year of his first album of original material in 25 years, “Summer of Sorcery.”

He had a clear idea of the kind of album he wanted to make. Where his first five albums were very political and autobiographical, that wasn’t the plan for “Summer of Sorcery.”

“I managed to do a completely fictional album,” Van Zandt said. “I just felt, we’re in such a dark time in terms of our civilization that my usefulness right now would be to provide a little bit of light and a little bit of optimism. So I made summer the theme and kind of looked back to the days when we were young and school was out, and man, that thrill, the excitement of summer, the possibility of just falling in love…that whole feeling of just liberation that comes with summer when you’re young.”

Musically, he wanted to connect back to the soul-meets-rock music he started to develop as a key songwriter and producer in the 1970s for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and carried into his solo albums.

He found himself especially drawing back to his fourth solo album, 1989’s “Revolution,” which he feels was the pinnacle of his exploration of the rock-soul-funk sound, an album where he married those influences to synthetic ‘80s production. (Van Zandt’s fifth solo album, “Born Again Savage,” was a left turn into ‘60s-ish hard rock.)

“I kept coming back to that (“Revolution”) record. I’m like now that’s fascinating to me. Why am I doing that? Because that’s where my progress stopped, you know what I mean?” Van Zandt said. “So I went back to that and really have stayed in that funk thing.

Funk is really the major sort of identity of where this thing is at right now. I don’t want to scare anybody or freak anybody out, but I’m not really making rock records anymore and my show is not a rock show. Now do I have elements of rock in it? Of course, yes, but it’s something else. It’s some other kind of hybrid thing, this rock-meets-soul-meets-funk that I went to an extreme with on ‘Revolution’ in terms of technology.

But now (on “Summer of Sorcery”) I’ve come back, I’ve kind of progressed back in a way toward more natural instruments, although we do integrate synthesizers a little bit. But it’s back to real horns, it’s all real horns and real drums and real everything else, but with some synthesizer elements, some technological elements that remain from the ‘Revolution’ era in there. So it’s a real natural progression from the ‘Revolution’ album, but looking forward.”

Van Zandt wants to keep making solo albums and seeing how he can evolve his music, while keeping his touring band together – it’s made up of some of the finest session players from New York City.

One thing that looks likely to interrupt that process is a return to action for the E Street Band. Springsteen has told interviewers that after finishing his recently released non-E Street Band solo album, “Western Stars,” he had a burst of inspiration and wrote an entire album he intends to record with the E Street Band. A tour is being planned for next year to support the album.

Van Zandt, who has remained close to Springsteen and speaks to him every couple of days or so, hopes the album and tour happens.

“I’m not going to guarantee anything’s happening,” Van Zandt said, noting he had yet to hear any of Springsteen’s new songs. “All I know is I am anticipating the possibility of it happening and I booked this tour until Nov. 6, ending at the Beacon in New York. I did that intentionally with the thought that we may go into the studio. I wanted to make sure that we had enough time to record a new album and get it out for the summer of 2020.”

For now, Van Zandt will tour into the fall with his own band.

“It’s a whole new show this year. It (features) the ‘Summer of Sorcery’ album and a few of the things from my past that fit into the picture. But basically it’s a whole new show.”

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