The E Street Band and Sopranos legend talks reuniting the Disciples of Soul and rocking for teachers before tonight's show at the CMA Theater
A renaissance man of the highest order, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer “Little” Steven Van Zandt has worn many hats, wigs and head scarves over the decades. He’s been consigliere to New Jersey’s two most iconic bosses — Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano — and he’s become satellite radio’s preeminent garage-rock revivalist as well as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
With the release of last year’s Soulfire — his first solo album in nearly 20 years — Van Zandt returned to a role often overshadowed by his gigs as E Street Band guitarist and turns as mob enforcers in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer: fronting his own band, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Though best known for Reagan-era protest anthems like “Los Desaparecidos” and “I Am a Patriot” with his solo outfit, Van Zandt and his Disciples opt to indulge their passion for brassy, rocked-out R&B rave-ups on Soulfire. This year’s followup — Soulfire Live!, a shit-hot recording capturing the band cooking on stage — offers a persuasive preview of what to expect tonight when Miami Steve brings his sweaty, old-school Jersey Shore revue to the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“We have pretty much the whole history of rock ’n’ roll in our show,” Van Zandt tells the Scene. And the history lessons don’t just live on the stage. Van Zandt is a dedicated advocate for music education in public schools, and he’s curating lesson plans and documentary materials on the history of rock music and providing them free to teachers via his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and his TeachRock undertaking. At each stop on the current Disciples tour, including tonight’s, teachers get in free, and can register for a pre-show TeachRock workshop here.
“This whole tour is dedicated to the whole teaching profession,” Van Zandt says, noting how he stands in solidarity with teachers recently striking over low wages in Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere. “We feel that the teaching profession is just underappreciated, undervalued and certainly underpaid.”
In advance of the show, Van Zandt rang up the Scene to rap about stepping back into the spotlight as a bandleader, how there’s no such thing as the death of Tony Soprano, his portrayal in his IRL boss’ recent memoir and more.
It’s been about nine years since we last talked. You were telling me to see Bruce Springsteen and and the E Street Band on the Working on a Dream Tour because it might be the last chance, and here we are.
[laughs] Yeah, we never go away.
That’s comforting. Since then, and in the reunion era in the years before, you’ve been busy. What kept you away from your solo efforts? Was it just a matter of being busy with Bruce, The Sopranos, Lilyhammer, Sirius and stuff like that?
Yeah, I really don’t have any excuse. I didn’t do it consciously. I started acting and one thing led to another, before you know it, 20 years went by. I wish I had a better excuse, but I really don’t. And even getting back into it was completely accidental. This London promoter, Leo Green, at the end of the E Street tour of 2017 asked me when we’re coming back to London, and I said me and my wife Maureen [Van Zandt] were coming band for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday party. And he said that’s week as my BluesFest, why don’t you throw a band together? And I said, “Maybe it’s time. I haven’t done that in a while.” One thing led to another and I was kind of surprised myself. I was surprised that the stuff held up as well as it did. The entire gig we did in London felt like an album already, so we just came home, went right into the studio and I made [2017’s Soulfire] like a reintroduction of myself, with songs that I’d written for other people — kind of a summary of my whole life.
Did it feel different coming back into that frontman role after nearly 20 more years of experience in your career since 1999?
You know what it felt like? The biggest difference for me was I really felt like I could separate the producer from the artist better than I used to be able to do. I really felt like [Soulfire] was my first solo album that was really produced by a producer, rather than being produced half by the artist. It’s different. It’s a very different sensibility; a different frame of mind. I had come off of [producing] the Darlene Love album [2015’s Introducing Darlene Love] the year before, which was the best thing I’ve ever done. I made that record as big as it could be — you know, string sections on every song, background vocals on every song — that’s about as big as rock gets, and I was hearing it the same way for me. I decided to return to my most identifiable sound, which is that rock-meets-soul sound that I kind of created with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and with my first solo album [1982’s Men Without Women]. … It felt good. It was very, very simple; it captured the excitement from the live gig. And bam! There we are. Coincidentally, Bruce had taken off , and would take off the entire 2018 [for his one-man Springsteen on Broadway show], so we figured, "Let’s take it on the road," and that’s what we’ve been doing.
Does fronting the Disciples of Soul feel much different to you than playing guitar in the E Street Band?
Oh yeah! It’s a whole different job. Honestly, it is as different as can be. I got to the point where I was quite a good frontman in the ’80s. If you go back and listen — I was looking at a show in Sweden in 1987 on the internet, and I didn’t realize how good a frontman I’d become back then. And I may never get back to that, but I’m trying to head in that direction. But the job of frontman is an entirely different job. … Right now I’m looking at it like a bandleader just presenting a band — just like the big band guys used to do, you know? And being a 15-piece band, it has its own entertainment value.
Does Bruce influence any of that, or do you make a conscious decision to differentiate your style in leading a band?
Well there’s certain things in common — a lot of what Bruce learned as a frontman was from the soul guys — they were the real bandleaders. So we both have that in common, especially [because] this music I’m doing right now is pretty much straight-ahead soul. We include a lot of different other genres in the show — we have pretty much the whole history of rock ’n’ roll in our show — but the bulk of it is straight-ahead soul music, done in a literal fashion. Bruce’s version, of course, was mostly with a seven-piece band, so it was more of a rock version of the soul music bandleader. My thing is literally more just like Ike Turner [or] James Brown.
With the political climate what it is right now, do you feel like your political songs from the ’80s — songs like “I Am a Patriot” — are they resonating more for you these days?
Yeah, they do hold up very well, unfortunately. They are very relevant now. It’s weird, because in many ways it’s similar, in terms of the effect of the politics, what social effect these particular political [times] are suggesting, it is quite similar. At the same time, the methodology by which this philosophy is communicated [has changed]. … Ronald Reagan was very much everybody’s sort of grandfather, was just kind of everybody’s frontman, and all the bad stuff was hidden behind the scenes — there was a lot of bad stuff going on but nobody knew about it. Now it’s all upfront, so it’s kind of a fascinating difference, even though the end result may be similar.
Do you think there’s a lack of politics in modern music?
Yeah — at this point I’ve got to say though, it’s so obvious [what’s going on], it seems redundant [to sing about it]. You don’t get any more political than I am, and I’ve been touring all year basically leaving the politics out of the conversation, because it just feels totally redundant. … The politics are built into the songs anyway. I’ve just been finding it much more useful to just give people a two-hour break from the politics, and from the 24/7 onslaught [of it].
It seems there’s this connection between how you’re describing the shows, and the record, and the element of music education — taking audiences through the history of music and the history of rock ’n’ roll. Looking at it in the context of something like your radio show Underground Garage, I noticed in the set list there are a handful of covers. Does making the set list for the show feel somewhat like being a disc jockey?
[laughs] Yeah, well, maybe. … It’s more the story of my life than a DJ [set]. But, you know, there is a dynamic when you’re putting a set list together that’s similar live and similar on radio. Yeah, it is similar.
When it comes to playing older material, there’s a way of doing it — and I’ve noticed this watching the E Street Band — without it being a nostalgia thing, where you’re taking the songs into the context of the world today. Do you feel that?
Yeah, that’s really automatic with me. … I’ve never felt nostalgic about this stuff. Never. The one good thing about not ever having a hit is, you know, there’s nothing to be nostalgic about. All of my material is relevant right now like it was then.
So it doesn’t feel like reliving a moment in time?
No. … I wish it did in some cases, but not really. This stuff was built to be universal back then and it’s universal now.
What would you say was your most unexpected moment in your career?
Well, I’ve had several unexpected moments. Sopranos was unexpected. Lilyhammerwas unexpected. The radio show I did work on very hard. Mostly those two things — The Sopranos and Lilyhammer both came out of nowhere.
So did Tony die or not?
[laughs] We did an article, in Vanity Fair I think it was, years after the show ended, and I think the article ended with the guy asking me that question: What happened at the end of the show? And I said I’m going to tell you exactly what happened at the end of the show — the director yelled “Cut!” and the actors went home. So that holds up. … It was what it was. The camera moved on, it was no longer capturing what was happening in this fictitious world.
Is that similar to be asked who is Terry in “Backstreets” or something like that?
[laughs] Yeah, that’s sort of irrelevant, yes.
It’s about what the listener or viewer is bringing to it.
You know, these are the whims of the fanatics, which, I appreciate the interest, but I don’t share [it] to the level where I’m going to start making stuff up. I busy enough dealing with reality, so …
What was your response to Bruce’s book [Born to Run]? Obviously you’re in it all over the place.
Yeah, it was very well-written. You know. It was just great. Just great.
Well, I think, you know, yeah, there’s some slight differences here and there, you know? Some things, you know, he remembers some things slightly different than I do in a couple cases, but we’ll just have to wait for my book for that.
And you’re working on one?
No [laughs]. I’m not.
Playing Tuesday, May 15, at the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum