Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
Steven Van Zandt, musician, actor, political activist, otherwise known as Little Steven, has released his first solo album in 18 years. Most people will know him for his friendship and frequent collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, or his acting career in dramas such as The Sopranos or Lilyhammer, and some will know him for his bandana and fairly garish and eye-catching choice of shirts. What you should now know him for however, is his latest album, Soulfire.
The story of Soulfire begins with the track The City Weeps Tonight, a sweet and touching doo-wop track, which was originally written for his debut solo album Men Without Women, released in 1982, yet it was to remain unfinished, as Van Zandt got stuck on the final verse. In an interview he stated “Every couple of years, I’d see if I could finish that last verse. I’m not kiddin’. I’d have pages and pages of words. … ‘Not yet, that’s not quite it.”
And yet he did finish it, and it made it onto Soulfire, which is both brassy and rocky, a real mash up of of soulful horn sections meeting the blues guitar sound that Van Zandt is an expert with. Appearing on the album are also tracks Van Zand wrote for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, namely 1976’s I Don’t Want To Go Home.
“That driving sound, for me, was inspired first by all things Motown, secondly by Stax — the Memphis and the Muscle Shoals scenes — then there’s New Orleans and Allen Toussaint” explains Van Zandt. “You got Curtis Mayfield records, then the whole Southern rock sound of Delaney & Bonnie. That’s the rock meeting soul thing I’m talking about, the elements that helped us when we started the whole Southside Johnny thing. When I did this gig last year — my first solo in some time with the Disciples — for a blues fest in London, I began thinking, ‘Who I am? Who do I want to be now?’ And I think that soul-rock thing that I went back to suited me best. It felt right. And now it feels as if I am my own genre.”
Soulfire attracts for multiple reasons, firstly, it’s the visceral multitudes of style that makes Soulfire such a pleasure to listen to. We can hear soul, we can hear blues, we can hear classic rock, we can hear doo-wop, we can hear jazz, we can hear R&B, notably in the new arrangement of the Southside Johnny songs I’m Coming Back, and Some Things Just Don’t Change. Tracks that truly stand out on the project are Down And Out In New York City, for it’s punchy and upbeat choral melodies and backup vocals, which effectively underpin Van Zandt being the most expressive with this own voice, the eponymous first track Soulfire, for it’s big band sound, with which you can hear the influence of Van Zandt’s years with Springsteen’s E Street Band. There is The City Weeps Tonight, which is an incredibly pretty song, and really reminds me of The Penguins’ Earth Angel, and I Don’t Want To Go Home, which is a little more stripped back than the other tracks, as if just a recording studio jam that ended up on the album – but it works, it’s summery, light, and has a real American road trip sound to it.
Soulfire largely consists of tracks Van Zandt wrote for other artists throughout the years of being a successful musician, but he has brought them up to date. It’s his own signature sound, soul-rock that was once known as the Jersey Shore sound, the hooks and riffs of motown colliding with the crooning of backup singers, and the big brass sound of classic soul itself.
The emotional commitment from the part of Van Zandt carries this album along wonderfully. It stems from knowing Van Zandt as an incredibly passionate and gifted live musician (just watch any E Street Band gig, and you’ll understand). It’s an album that, regardless of the hardships the man has seen in his life, is relentlessly fun.
Listen to Soulfire below.