Take a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show. You've got a lengthy running time and a massive band with horns, multiple guitarists and back-up singers. Now, replace the Boss with a lead singer with limited vocal range and minimal on-stage presence. And finally, replace Springsteen's songbook with a batch of tunes that sound like late-1970s Bruce songs without the hooks. You've got yourself a Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul concert.
Steven Van Zandt is a lot of things, from beloved sideman to character actor. Between his Underground Garage radio show and satellite station and production work on albums by the late punk icon Joey Ramone and soul singer Darlene Love, he's one of the finest chroniclers of and advocates for American rock and soul. But what he's not is a performer capable of headlining a two-hour, twenty minute show as he did Friday night at the Palace.
The evening got off to a fine start when Little Steven and his 15-piece band, highlighted by a delightful triad of nubile back-up singers/dancers (more on them later) dressed in DayGlo tie-dye bell bottoms and glittery bustiers, started the show with a lively cover of Arthur Conley's 1967 song "Sweet Soul Music."
After that came energetic takes of "Soulfire," the Springsteenian rocker "I'm Coming Back" and a cover of Etta James' "Blues is my Business" that featured something I've never seen come from Van Zandt in the three times I've seen him as part of the E Street Band: a lengthy, rippin' guitar solo.
The show could have ended following that because, aside from the back-up singers, not much of note happened. "Until the Good is Gone" started with a lengthy, low-energy monologue about the song's history by Van Zandt made more interesting by the fact the singers danced through its entirety. The competent, but unexceptional, Stones-lite garage rock of "Salvation" was augmented by the fact the singers sashayed and shimmied like the finest dancers to ever perform on "Solid Gold."
You may wonder why these three chanteuses received so much attention and the answer to that would be that it's due to the fact Van Zandt just isn't that interesting as a solo performer. "The City Weeps Tonight" was preceded by an awkward recap on the history of doo wop music and how DJs like Alan Freed helped break the musical color barrier. The song itself was a bland doo wop-influenced number and it highlighted the essence of Van Zandt: while he's perhaps the musician best qualified to write a book on the history of rock-and-soul, he's poorly equipped to deliver that history via musical performance.
This fact was showcased by a cover of the 1973 James Brown slow jam "Down and Out in New York City." As far as songs by the Godfather of Soul go it's good but not great; it's memorable because Brown was an unreal singer and force of nature. Van Zandt is limited in range and just incapable of offering the injection of personality necessary to pull it off.
It happened again on a take of his own song, "Forever." In the hands of someone like Darlene Love or Ronnie Spector, the Phil Spector-style structure of the song could soar. But when performed by Van Zandt, it was just bland.
It wasn't until the show's closer, "Out of the Darkness" that the concert moved away from sounding more like an E Street shamble than an E Street Shuffle. It was the first song since "Blues is my Business" to feature a big, anthemic chorus for the politely positive audience to easily sing along to.
And the back-up singers slayed on it.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
Length: 2 hour 20 minutes
Highlights: "Sweet Soul Music," "Blues is my Business" and "Out of the Darkness"
The Crowd: About 700-800, with many of them wearing Springsteen shirts.
Jim Shahen is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.