Episode 35: Steven Van Zandt
When a “made man” wants to talk, you stop and listen. Steven Van Zandt is a well connected individual with TWO bosses: Bruce Springsteen AND Tony Soprano. We spent some time talking about musical memories, his new album and whether his presence was requested for the Sopranos prequel.
Thanks to Anastasia Vishnevsky for our theme music and as always, please consider subscribing to our podcast through your favorite app. If you like what you hear, please leave a rating and/or review. It helps our podcast rise through the rankings so others can discover it.
Musician, band leader, producer, actor, arranger, activist, and so much more, Little Steven Van Zandt is known and beloved around the world for his utterly distinctive songwriting, artistic ambition, and unyielding belief in the power and glory of classic rock ‘n’ soul. In addition to his ongoing role as a touring and recording member of The E Street Band, the past two decades have seen the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer expand his personal parameters to include legendary work as an actor on The Sopranos and Lilyhammer as well as host-creator of Sirius XM’s one-and-only “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” (not to mention creator of Sirius XM’s long-running “Outlaw Country” format). Van Zandt’s myriad creative efforts in recent years include composing the score for all three seasons of Lilyhammer along with landmark work as producer and songwriter, lending his distinctive craft to records including Darlene Love’s acclaimed 2015 release, INTRODUCING DARLENE LOVE.
Van Zandt’s first solo album in close to two decades, SOULFIRE drew rapturous applause from fans and critics alike upon its 2017 release, with Rolling Stone declaring, “Rock’s ultimate sideman reclaims the Jersey Shore sound he helped invent.” “Cynicism, irony and cultivated hip detachment have taken their toll on rock ‘n’ roll,” raved USA Today. “With SOULFIRE, Van Zandt aims to blow all that out and lead listeners back to its more passionate essence.” “It’s hard to imagine a more joyous and revelatory contemporary blue-eyed soul recording,” enthused American Songwriter. “The appropriately titled SOULFIRE is a tough, tight and clearly inspired project as well as a most welcome return from the musical shadows for Steven Van Zandt.” SOULFIRE “hearkens back to Van Zandt’s classic first solo album of gritty, greasy, horn-accented ‘60s-style rock and soul,” noted Billboard, while Paste proclaimed, “Rockier than Motown or the Sound of Philadelphia, this a joyous invitation to live and love.”
For more, please visit:
“My first five albums in the ‘80s were both very personal, and very political,” explains Little Steven aka Steven Van Zandt. “I wanted the new material to be more fictionalized. The way records were when I grew up. Before it was an artform. The concept was capturing and communicating that first rush of summer. The electricity of that feeling of unlimited possibilities. Of falling in love with the world for the first time. Obviously, there are occasional personal references, and a bit of what’s going on socially scattered throughout, but I achieved what I set out to do. I created a collection of fictional movies scenes that feel like summer. I’m quite proud of it.”
SUMMER OF SORCERY – which arrives just two years after Little Steven’s acclaimed 2017’s solo return, SOULFIRE, and its 2018 live follow-up, SOULFIRE LIVE! – was written, arranged, and produced by Van Zandt at his own Renegade Studios in New York City; the album was co-produced and recorded by GRAMMY® Award-winner Geoff Sanoff and co-produced by Disciples of Soul musical director and guitarist Marc Ribler. SUMMER OF SORCERY was mixed and mastered respectively by Van Zandt’s career-long collaborators and friends Bob Clearmountain (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who, Bryan Adams), and Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Band, Sly and the Family Stone). The album – which features an exclusive introduction written by Van Zandt – is adorned with Frank Frazetta-inspired cover art by Van Zandt’s longtime art director, Louis Arzonico.
Little Steven is joined on this thrilling musical journey with his all-star band the Disciples of Soul, a 14-strong ensemble made up of some of the best studio and live musicians in the business. Leading the charge alongside Van Zandt is musical director and guitarist Marc Ribler (Darlene Love, Roger McGuinn, Carole King) who conducts the band consisting of Lowell “Banana” Levinger of The Youngbloods on piano and Wurlitzer, bassist Jack Daley (Lenny Kravitz, Boz Scaggs, Darryl Hall), drummer Rich Mercurio (Ben E King, Sara Bareilles, Idina Menzel), percussionist Anthony Almonte (King Creole and The Coconuts), Andy Burton on B3 organ, piano, synthesizers (Cyndi Lauper, John Mayer, Ian Hunter), the dynamite horn section of horn director Eddie Manion on baritone saxophone (Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny), Stan Harrison on tenor saxophone and flute (David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Duran Duran), Ron Tooley on trumpet (James Brown, John Lennon, Maceo Parker), Ravi Best on trumpet (Aretha Franklin, Stevie, Wonder, Kool and The Gang) and Clark Gayton on trombone (Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Joss Stone, Rhianna). The band is rounded out with the soulful, synchronized dancing backup singers Jessie Wagner (Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz, Chic ), Sara Devine (Alicia Keys, Mary J Blige) and Tania Jones (Disciples of Soul).
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul will celebrate SUMMER OF SORCERY with special record release shows at The Saban in Los Angeles on May 4 and at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J. on May 8th. A wide-ranging world tour will follow, beginning May 16 at Liverpool, UK’s 02 Academy and then making headline stops across the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Exclusive VIP Meet & Greet Upgrade Packages are available for most dates. The “SUMMER OF SORCERY TOUR” will hit North America this summer – a full itinerary will be announced soon. In addition, Little Steven will lead the Disciples of Soul down under for the very final dates on his epic “SOULFIRE TOUR,” including a pair of hugely anticipated performances at the 30th anniversary Byron Bay Bluesfest in Byron Bay, Australia (April 18 and 20). For complete details, updates, and ticket availability, please visit www.littlesteven.com/on-tour.
SUMMER OF SORCERY is another landmark work in a four-decade career full of milestones, a spirited collection of songs which conjure up all the wonder and magic of the eponymous season – the beach and the boardwalk, the young love and unbridled lust, the innocence and experience that somehow starts it all.
“I always work thematically,” Van Zandt says. “I can’t just throw together a collection of songs; there has to be some kind of overriding idea that drives it. This time I wanted to capture the excitement of that first summer of consciousness. That one special summer where you first fall in love with life, that thrill of just being alive.”
Van Zandt’s first solo album as Little Steven in close to two decades, 2017’s SOULFIRE saw the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer revisiting songs that spanned the length of his career as artist, performer, producer, arranger, and songwriter, focusing on the “soul horns-meet-rock ‘n’ roll guitars” sound he first pioneered on Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ classic first three albums and later, his own first solo LP. The album saw Van Zandt uniting an all-new Disciples of Soul, complete with three backing vocalists and a full horn section featuring original Asbury Jukes/Miami Horns saxophonists Stan Harrison (tenor) and Eddie Manion (baritone). Little Steven and his 15-piece big band spent nearly two years traveling the world on the SOULFIRE Tour, not to mention last year’s “SOULFIRE TEACHER SOLIDARITY TOUR” supporting TeachRock, the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s national initiative to bring music curriculum into schools across the country. Still, the planetary success of the SOULFIRE project left Van Zandt to ponder: Where do I want to go now?
“Quite honestly, the SOULFIRE Tour was something special,” he says. “It was a definitive type of tour – I told my whole life story and most of the story of the history of rock ‘n’ roll simultaneously, it was a show 20, 30, 40 years in the making. So it was like, ok, now what? How do we beat that, or at least equal it? You set these standards and now you’ve got to reach them.”
Reach them he did – SUMMER OF SORCERY is Little Steven at his omnivorous, humanistic best, expertly crafted and deeply rooted in the many classic genres which taught and inspired the self-proclaimed “walking history lesson” from the jump. With their richly bombastic arrangements, floor-shaking groves, and high-powered performances from all involved, new songs like “Soul Power Twist and the album kick off “Communion” synthesize Van Zandt’s incalculable range of cultural and sonic inspirations into a one-of-a-kind brass-fueled brand of Technicolor rock ‘n’ soul unlike anyone else’s. The album features 10 original new songs alongside “Suddenly You,” an outtake from the “Lilyhammer” score, Netflix’s first original series, which starred Van Zandt who also composed all the music for trailblazing show, and a reimagining of “Education” which was first recorded for his 1989 album Revolution. “The education system needs to be fixed, needs to be improved,” he says. “Teachers need to be supported. There needs to be more support, more funding. That’s what I’m trying to get across with my TeachRock program and that’s all in this song.”
The record culminates with the epic title track, “Summer of Sorcery,” an eight-minute mission statement that conjures the euphoric rush of a summer romance and limitless possibility. “The whole theme of the album is summed up in that song, that wizardry, that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer,” says Van Zandt.
“I wanted to create a hybrid that would be uniquely me,” he says. “I wanted to hear Sly and the Family Stone, I wanted to hear Sam Cooke, I wanted to hear Tito Puente. I wanted to try and get the Beach Boys in there. James Brown, of course. I had certain touchstones of musical influence that I wanted to integrate into my thing.”
Recorded last year mid-SOULFIRE Tour and then mixed whilst on the road once again, SUMMER OF SORCERY represents a straightforward progression from its predecessor, the first time in Van Zandt’s long career that he’s maintained a band line-up and sonic approach from one solo work to the next.
“Instead of embarking on a whole new adventure, I decided, I’m going to evolve this thing,” Van Zandt says. “I’ve always wondered where my sound would evolve to if I ever did the same thing twice, if I ever evolved vertically rather than horizontally. All five of my solo albums before SOULFIRE are completely different genres. I never had a chance to evolve one particular thing to see where it went.”
Not to say Van Zandt didn’t push himself towards something new and novel – quite the opposite in fact. Where his prior solo canon was irrefutably linked by both his lifelong activism and deeply personal lyricism, this time Little Steven chose to eschew the overly political and explicitly autobiographical for a more overarching approach, one which allowed him a chance to apply his particular style of studied songcraft for his own album instead of another’s.
“With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day, says Van Zandt. “That was the feeling in the ‘60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. Our minds were blown every single day, one amazing thing after another, constantly lifting you up. So you kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost.”
If SOULFIRE stands as the last word at the end of one chapter of Van Zandt’s long career, SUMMER OF SORCERY marks the start of what comes next.
“Making this record was everything I’d hoped for,” Little Steven says. “What I’d hoped would happen was, you put the whole tour, all of those songs, into a funnel and out of that funnel comes a new album. And that’s exactly what happened.”