Blues is his business ….and for the first time in a long while, business is good
In his role as Tony’s sidekick on The Sopranos, Steven Van Zandt’s character Silvio, was famed for his impression of Michael Corleone’s line in The Godfather of “just when I thought I was out….they pulled me back in…..”
Perhaps there was an element of that about “Soulfire.” It is, after all, his first album in 18 years (although quite how it got to be 18 years since the brilliant metal tinged “Born Again Savage” god alone knows) but it’s more than that. “Soulfire” is a return to the boardwalk and the Jersey shore.
It’s not like Van Zandt has been away from music in that time, of course. He is essentially the band leader in the E. St band, and when you are the sidekick to Springsteen in probably the greatest live band there has ever been, you don’t get a lot of time for solo records.
Which is why, perhaps, “Soulfire” is the type of record that it is. Coaxed back to playing live at last year’s Bluesfest, it is the sound of a man who has rediscovered his love for being stage front.
It begins with the title track. Soul infused as the name might suggest, it crackles with an energy that you can’t fake, but as if to emphasise the idea that Little Steven is happy this time to embrace his past to look to the future, much of the rest of it is given to his versions of the classic songs he has written over the years.
And they don’t come any more classic than “I’m Coming Back” – from Southside Johnny’s incredible “Better Days” album in 1991 – which he sticks pretty close to.
This is one of a number of Southside tunes he interprets here. “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town” is a huge sounding romp, while the horns and acoustics give “I Don’t Wanna Go Home” a different slant, as do the wonderful backing vocals courtesy of the a cappella group The Persuasions.
A superb writer of rock n roll songs, as “I Saw The Light” (originally intended for Richie Sambora) proves. It possesses a rare type of urgency, while “The City Weeps Tonight” has a timeless quality, and recalls those films set in the 50s where the leather jacket clad hero would try and get to first base with the prom queen at the drive thru movie.
There’s even a couple that he didn’t write. “Down And Out In New York City” is a funky strutter here, while Etta James’ “Blues Is My Business” has the feel of a classic Chicago Blues tune.
It is interesting that there’s not much of the blue-collar rock of his Boss here. “Saint Valentines Day” is perhaps the closest it gets, but even this can’t resist a liberal dollop of horns and is all the better for it.
Ending with another song that Southside made famous, “Ride The Night Away” was originally written for Jimmy Barnes some 30 plus years ago. As if to prove that the best music never dates, it sounds fresh as a daisy here.
“Soulfire” apparently heralds a more permanent return to solo work from Van Zandt and that is something to relish. His sixth solo record – and his first without an overt political stance – might be a little bit of a grab bag collection, but is Little Steven sounding like he’s never had so much fun.