Little Steven’s Enchanted Spell Cures It All With Love. Again.

Little Steven celebrates Summer, Consciousness & Possibilities (and maybe some politics) – Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul LIVE, a review.

When Little Steven &The Disciples of Soul performed Party Mambo, with its swinging Latin rhythm, we’d already experienced the rapture of horns and soul in his new album’s first song and ‘call to action’ Communion,  followed by some straight-up in-your-face, punk rock ‘n’ roll. Each song was in a different musical genre, and each song was masterfully performed. The energy was through the roof. Mambo, a danceable prayer for Puerto Rico, with supplications to the Orishas that many of us Latinos know well, is the perfect mixture of Spanglish outrage and music that gets you moving. It’s a protest song disguised as a descarga jam that would’ve been worthy of Tito Puente at his most incendiary. The American fiesta meets the Latin mambo.  In the callouts that reference the Lucumi and Yoruba religion’s Orishas, Van Zandt alludes to the syncretism that slaves captured by the Spanish used to hold onto their religious identities, although in secret. This sacred act of resistance meets soul twistin’ Latin tinge for an unexpected explosion.  This is not watered down salsa, this is the fire. This is as hot as it gets.

This moment came three songs into Little Steven’s concert at L.A.’s Saban Theater this May, on the first stop of a tour in support of his new album Summer of Sorcery.  Recent stories about his newest record lead with the headline ‘Van Zandt leaves politics behind on his new album’ and that’s “true”.  But in subtle ways, this may be his most political tour ever.

From the moment the The Disciples of Soul took the stage, many coming up through the back of the house in a line of horns and singers, (and it should be noted, Van Zandt’s Disciples line up is virtually intact from the Soulfire tour a few years back – for the most part he’s kept that amazing band together) you could feel the energy of the new, and the passionate.  And when Little Steven takes the stage, emerging from the wings to proclaim, “Somebody open up the door! Baby I’m back to rock some more!”, exultation’s of “Harmony, Unity, Communion” follow.   Before the dust has settled, Camouflage of Righteousness, from his great 1999 rock ‘n roll record Born Again Savage, arrives to remind us that no one gets out of here alive or unscathed. Off the bat, there’s a warning shot that the evening’s goal of Communion won’t come at the expense of truth. There won’t be any easy finger pointing in tonight’s salvation show – as Steven snarls with a sex pistols-style vocal,

We give you politicians
And you call it choice
We let you do the voting
And you think you have a voice

The old men make excuses
While the young men bring the noise
And nothing ever changes
‘Cause boys keep being boys

We offer you diversion
On any channel you choose
We give you bread and circus
And you still call it news

We orchestrate your hatred
It’s as clear as white and black
We select your history
And you believe it’s fact

When I start quoting Little Steven lyrics, especially the political stuff, it’s hard for me to stop. ‘Cause 1.) one hears truth so infrequently these days and cause 2.) I’m a big fan (Full Disclosure: I’m working on a project with Mr. Van Zandt, that I’ve been trying to get done for 20 years – so its safe to say I’m all-in. There’s barely anymore kool-aid in the glass to drink). I’ll chill a bit with the quotes, but… this opening was as powerful as it was playful.

After that trio of songs, there’s nowhere to go but down, but somehow Little Steven casts aside that notion completely and opens up some sort of trap door to more excitement, because Love Again, perhaps his hook laden new album’s catchiest track, actually manages to take things even higher.  With Steven putting down the guitar to grab the mic stand, the whole glowing miracle of the Disciples 2019 version falls into place. With a tip of the bandana to fellow New Jersey son Frank Sinatra‘s I Wish I Were In Love Again , Steven replaces Frank’s longing for “the daily fights, the endless nights, the quick toboggan when you reach the heights,” with pure, amped-up soul swing – you can practically hear the wax melting off the 45. Singing about amore the way only a man who’s been in love for most of his adult life can sing about it, Van Zandt’s smile performing this song belies a kind of joy that lets you know this one achievement has been unlocked. Later in the evening’s song selections it’ll become even more clear. Anyone who follows Steven and his wife Maureen on Twitter can read all about it for themselves – and all that luv energy must inform the way Steven performs it. It’s as if he is leading a small review, one influenced by every piece of rock ‘n roll music that’s come before it, when he sings, I’ve got a picture of Brian Wilson that I pray to every night, please let this be the first summer of the rest of my life… the lyrics, gorgeous melody and arrangement at maximum groove, Love Again just slides right into the perfect summer place. No matter how much the narrator speaks of ‘wanting to be’… this performance is buoyed by a feeling of knowing exactly what real love is like. With a smitten homage to his faves the Temptations, and the David Ruffin sung classic I Wish It Would Rain, this hopeless romantic fully understands the risks he’s taking with it all, I wonder if my ambition or my soul will dry up first, but he admits – Affection’s an addiction, and i know i’m hooked.

It’s very rare that an artist plays almost entirely their new album and it’s received like its a show packed with old favorites.  But that miracle was in effect here, which speaks to the power of his band, and his strength as a songwriter and performer. He’s thrown out all the show-stopping numbers from the last tour – no big horns highlighting Until The Good Is Gone or even that spectacular version of Soulfire that served as a statement of purpose for that tour. It’s all gone and you don’t miss it for a second. That’s how strong this new material is, and that’s how fearless he is. But not at the expense of a great show. The live show… is better. It’s better.

The songs that follow don’t miss a beat. In Education, Van Zandt has written a great song to accompany his passionate support for teachers and a sort of informal anthem for his Teach Rock Foundation, and I Visit The Blues lets him show off his skills as a guitar player (and maybe wish for an all-Blues album).  Gravity is a funk workout which could be directed at the current administration, or maybe it’s about a lover or maybe it’s a shot across the bow at America or governments in general. At any rate, no one is asking those questions cause everyone is dancing. If you spend too much time thinking about it, you’re going to miss the point. As Lou Reed said to Steven in the 1985 documentary about the Making of the Sun City song and album, “it’s like osmosis, it seeps it unconsciously.”

Los Desaparecidos has as much power live as on the masterful 1984 recording and serves as a reminder that issues affecting Latinos have been on Steven’s mind for a long time – as he rips through this tale of the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared from his album Voice of America, it’s as urgent and tragically current as anything new anyone has written.

The Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes tunes that follow are introduced as “songs i wrote with my friend Bruce Springsteen” and the pop craftsmanship that Steven admires is in full effect in these classics (and his co-writer showed up in the encores to celebrate this great night). It’s a testament to the riches of the work he’s done with Southside, (who he thanked for keeping his music alive all these years) that he could have performed almost any of those songs he produced/wrote/arranged for him and they would have worked.

He chose stone cold Jersey soul classics, Trapped Again, Little Girl So Fine, and Love On The Wrong Side of Town, but you could substitute most any others he’s written and you’d hear as perfect an example of songwriting craft. It’s almost unfair how easily it comes to him. Van Zandt could have pulled out Some Things Just Don’t Change,  Got To Be A Better Way Home, or I’m Coming Back (and last tour, he did). The list is long and deep and almost endless. And now that the evening’s music has entered the jungle of lush arrangements, the groove continues with the brave romanticism of Suddenly You and Vortex from his new album.

Little Steven’s New Album

His oft-covered reggae classic I Am A Patriot is restored to a quick one-two punch plea for putting aside right and left divisiveness and finding a common ground, and his spoken intro provides the evenings only real explicit political message.  Addressing the audience about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and how one can be a true Patriot, love one’s country AND be a Globalist, he offers hope that the river really will open for the righteous… someday.  And then a new song, Superfly Terraplane, kicks it up a notch, with a testosterone-fueled, ready to rock, full-contact blast of energy.

The Volcanic version of Bitter Fruit he’s been performing, originally a duet with Ruben Blades from Van Zandt’s 1987 album Freedom: No Compromise, is the next Latin flavored classic in the set  – and it’s a showstopper. With the sequencing of three Latin numbers in his set,  and the people and sound of his band, he doesn’t need to lecture about politics, everything seems to speak (or sing) for itself.

Bitter Fruit, written from the point of view of an immigrant working the brutal fields is flush with his musical and lyrical power, and provided inspiration for my political thinking both when it was released in the 80s and still today – a quick look at the YouTube comments proves I’m not alone.  Fans have uploaded different versions of it, all beloved.  My favorite is accompanied by a comment from a user named AmapolaTexas, who writes in the comments section:

When I was young, despite being an Asian origin (and female), all I wanted to be is exactly this Steven… now some 20 years past & I’m teaching Government.. I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned in school!!! Di molto grazie Steven!!!

The remix she commented on is the Caña No Mas Dub, and when you listen, there’s also a Tom Lord-Alge mix a few clicks away featuring Louis ‘Perico’ Ortiz on Trumpet and Fruta Amarga, the Spanish language version is another click away, both red hot. The positive Spanish language comments (‘¡Enorme! Qué temazo buscado desde hace mucho tiempo’) let you know how much of an impact this song made with Latino audiences. If AmapolaTexas (who referenced No Surrender in her note, probably written about Miami Steve, nice touch) had heard Bitter Fruit tonight in concert, she’d probably be dancing in the aisle like the rest of the audience. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and Little Steven, tonight in his incarnation as super-spy, shape-shifting mage, brings some West Side Story to it as well, an acknowledgement that it’s an outsiders view, but rooted in a history of progressive art. An outsiders view that attempts to understand, sympathize and identify with the oppressed. The Broadway show-style riffs that come just after guitar and timables solos, embrace Steven’s love of the theatrical and support his enthusiasm of the arts as something that needs to be available to all, taught to all, enjoyed by all. In his worldview and music, one piece can embrace disparate aesthetics, Broadway Show tunes to Punk Rock, Doo Wop to Mambo.  Show tune lyrics are certainly protest music, from Hair to Hamilton, and that night’s act included a nod from a born rocker to say that at its most heartfelt and powerful, rock ‘n roll also involves a wonderful bit of theater. An appropriate sentiment since the performer is also an actor, writer, director.

While it’s true that Van Zandt is not explicitly addressing issues of Latino immigration, the decision to throw lots of love at the Disciples Latin side is very specific. Immigrants have never been far from the center of Little Steven‘s music, from the gentle old country mandolins in Princess of Little Italy to the supercharged dance funk righteousness of 1987’s Sanctuary ,which celebrated The Sanctuary Movement, still vital today, which seeks to aid Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.

In a career filled with brave decisions, from alerting folks to the horrors of South Africa’s apartheid policies with Sun City, to the shouts for justice for Leonard Peltier , the Trail of Broken Treaties and the plight of Native American peoples, tonight’s act of heroism is this performance:  seeing someone who’s accomplished so much, now doing their best, most creative, subtle, gorgeous work. By the time Forever, the sole track performed from his debut album Men Without Women comes on, with its hyper-Motown, driving rock n soul – the prestidigitation is in full effect. Steven Van Zandt has summoned up the sorcery. The encores will bring Soul Power Twistin’ , the politics of the 60s (James Brown ya’ll, covered on his last record) meets the good times and innocent grove of that same magic period. In Steven’s vision, cops dance with Hip Hop girls, business people twist with teachers, even the 1st dog of Rock n Roll, Edie gets a shout out (along with Knuckles Santoro). “It’s an endless summer night, Liberation’s in the air, i want to say I love you to everybody everywhere.”

It’s a concept album, “10 little moves about that first summer of consciousness,”  as Steven’s band explains in concert and as he’s said in interviews, but it also may be a metaphor about a man deeply in love; with his wife, with music, with rock ‘n’ roll, with the restorative powers of it, with the magical powers of it.

Despite any political subtext, one can’t deny the untamed romantic heart that is the soul of this new album and live show. Summer of Sorcery, the title track which he performs toward the end of the show, is perhaps the most beautiful song Little Steven has ever written. In recent interviews he’s been insisting this is his first record that’s not autobiographical, but it sounds like Little Steven talking straight from the heart.  He sings the title track like a man who is involved, engaged and and aching for some sort of renewal (for the benefit of everybody out there, for his own benefit and the benefit of the muses), when Van Zandt makes his plea to the cosmos, he throws up his incantation and prayer.

Singing about wanting to ‘connect, be a forever friend, and start all over again’,  the emotion is so genuine you can feel it shoot out from the stage. I want to feel the same pain you do, I want to get high with you, I want to touch the sky with you… any fan can connect the dots. Keeping ‘love and hope and sex and dreams’ alive, by honoring the past, bringing it profoundly into the future and most importantly, relishing its present. I hate clichés but this music is a gift.

In concert and on the record, on the title track and on the stage, that ‘stranger’ that Little Steven calls himself, has stripped away his trappings and accoutrements and protection. Stepping out as front man, Steven is laying his soul bare; I’m a child again / you opened up my eyes again / my sense of wonder is alive again ….Singing about an idea, or a person? Can music solve the world’s problems? Or those of two people? Van Zandt’s answer lies in his most consistent muse, the spirit of the 60s. Little Steven is here to share that just as the protagonist of his tale hopes for unity among people, for harmony and communion, it’s love, again, that’ll set things right.

– Bill Teck
Los Angeles, 2019

Little Steven’s Enchanted Spell Cures It All With Love. Again.

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