Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Little Steven



"They have to go back to the '50s and '60s, where things started. That's how you get to be your own personality, by studying the masters. Rock and roll was white kids trying to make black music and failing, gloriously!" - Steven Van Zandt

Men Without Women (1982)


Lyin' In A Bed Of Fire/Inside Of Me/Until The Good Is Gone/Forever/Under The Gun/Save Me/Princess Of Little Italy/Angel Eyes/Men Without Women/I've Been Waiting   
                               
This album, released in late 1982, is a masterpiece of Asbury Park rock meets Motown and Stax. It is long in need of a remastering, and still sounds somewhat tinny and muffled, but what the heck. Supposedly remastered here, but I can’t detect any obvious change from the original recordings.

Anyway, on to the excellent, uplifting music. From the first powerful notes of those horns on Lyin' In A Bed Of Fire I was hooked. It continues through the soully Inside Of Me to the marvellous slab of Stax-y beauty that is After The Good Is Gone. Steven’s voice is not the best, as I am sure he would admit, but it cooks on this great track. 

 

Forever was a single, but not a hit, and it probably is the most commercial on the album, with a catchy hook. It had hints of some of Bruce Springsteen's rockier material from The River about it. Save Me has a slow burning Motown feel to it.

Under The Gun is a Start Me Up riffy rocker, and Angel Eyes also has a killer, Southside Johnny-esque riff. Princess Of Little Italy could be Mink De VilleI've Been Waiting is a soulful heartbreaker to end this thoroughly enjoyable album on. Just great stuff. I caught them live doing this album in 1983 at the old Hammersmith Palais and they were great.



Voice Of America (1984)


Voice Of America/Justice/Checkpoint Charlie/Solidarity/Out Of The Darkness/Los Desaparecidos/Fear/I Am A Patriot/Among The Believers/Undefeated    

After a marvellous, horn-powered, Asbury Park-ish debut solo album with The Disciples Of Soul in 1983, Little Steven Van Zandt unfortunately dispensed with the horn section and went back to rock basics with a guitar, bass, drum and synthesiser backing for this less soulful, more rocking album. the synthesiser backing was a unfortunate by-product of the fact that it was 1984. The album was also far more political than the full on Mink De Ville-style street romance of its predecessor, and this gave a sign as to Van Zandt's future direction.
                                            
As I said, this album is far heavier than Men Without Women, with no horns or Asbury Parkism. Just rock guitar, bass and drums and quite a bit of synthesised keyboards. There is some rousing, good stuff on here though - particularly the anthemic Out Of The Darkness and UndefeatedJustice and Among The Believers and Voice Of America are also big, fist-pumping rocking numbers with catchy hooks.

 

Fear has a suitably paranoid feel to it and Los Desaparecidos is an excellent riffy rocker of a protest song. Cod reggae makes an appearance in I Am A Patriot and Solidarity also has a staccato beat. Checkpoint Charlie is a soulful but cynical song about East Berlin. Van Zandt makes solid political points in pretty much every song. In that respect it is a bleak, sombre album, message-wise, but musically it is lively and rocking. Well worth a listen.

I saw him tour this too, at the Hammersmith Odeon, in September 1984. Great gig.



Freedom - No Compromise (1987)


Freedom/Trail Of Broken Treaties/Pretoria/Bitter Fruit/No More Parties/Can't You Feel The Fire/Native American/Sanctuary    

This is a much underrated and barely known protest album from Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band fame.

Against a backing of rock guitars and contemporary hip hop stylings, Van Zandt makes direct attacks on all matter of global political issues - US imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, the treatment of Native Americans, apartheid, South African government, neo-conservative prejudice, the problems of immigrants to the USA. Not the usual thing you would expect from an American, as Van Zandt certainly had a lot of issues with his country’s government at the time.
                                                  
Bruce Springsteen joins him on vocal for the excellent, slighty reggae-tinged Native AmericanTrail Of Broken Treaties is an angry rocker, as is the anthemic closer, Sanctuary, which has a killer guitar riff in it. Pretoria is an evocative song about South Africa, with some intriguing percussion sounds, as indeed is the Latin styled Bitter Fruit, concerning the unfairness of third world fruit production and exploitation of workers. The most archetypal Van Zandt rocker is the storming Can You Feel The Fire.

  
Van Zandt’s heart is in the right place and the points he makes are all valid ones. The music is a little of its time, a few too many drum machines utilised for my liking, but that doesn’t stop it being a good album. It seems to be a bit difficult to get hold of at the moment, so you may have to download it.



Revolution (1989)


Where Do We Go From Here?/Revolution/Education/Balance/Love and Forgiveness/Newspeak/Sexy/Leonard Peltier/Liberation Theology/Discipline      
                                    
This 1988 album saw Steven Van Zandt reprising the protests he began on the previous years’ excellent, underrated Freedom No Compromise. His targets are again the US Government, the right wing media, “newspeak”, the maltreatment of Native Americans. This time, however, the great rock guitar riffs are gone and we are left with a very 1988 hip hop-style synthesiser and drum machine backing with barely a guitar within earshot, which is a shame as Van Zandt is such a great guitarist.

Unfortunately, tracks like Where Do We Go From HereRevolution and Education just mesh into each other, Steven’s vocals seeming to lack the verve of the previous outing and buried in amongst a barrage of synthesisers. Some good lyrics here and there, but they seem to have lost the potency and urgency as the ones from before. Steven’s voice seems dull, rather than energised. There is no Sanctuary or Trail Of Broken Treaties type songs on here. It is as if he made all the points he wanted to make on the last album and he was sort of treading water here.


Love And Forgiveness has a good vibe to it, though. His voice comes alive a bit and the backing has a bit more variety in places.

The sound, due to the production, is rather muffled throughout. Not many tracks differ much from each other, except the excellent Leonard Peltier and parts of Liberation TheologyDiscipline has a nice guitar riff (at last - on the last track of the album!) and a good chorus hook. Overall, though, it is very much one those 80s albums spoilt by the overuse of synthesisers. So many groups did it, to their detriment. Another thing they all did was Prince-like songs, and  Sexy was one of those.

The album is now impossibly difficult to get hold of. If this is frustrating you, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.



Born Again Savage (1999)


Born Again Savage/Camouflage Of Righteousness/Guns, Drugs And Gasoline/Face Of God/Saint Francis/Salvation/Organize/Flesheater/Lust For Enlightenment/Tongues Of Angels        

Over ten years since his previous album, Revolution, this was Steven Van Zandt's heaviest, densest album to date, leaving any of his Asbury Park-isms way behind to give us a grungy, raw, garage rock album similar, to an extent, to his 1984 Voice Of America offering. It is much more powerful, however, and is a bit of an acquired taste. John Bonham's son Jason is on drums and U2's Adam Clayton plays bass throughout. The album's theme are political, as was now usual for Van Zandt - corruption, crime, wealth imbalances, governmental incompetence and dodgy financiers. The stuff that always seems to need confronting. Van Zandt certainly approaches the album, as the title suggests, with a certain savagery. The are no Asbury Park horns and saxophones anywhere within earshot, no romantic "little girl so fine" lyrics either. This is a full-on, abrasive guitar and angry vocals album.

There are loads of influences on the album - Led ZeppelinJimi HendrixU2Green DayNirvana, sixties pysch rock and freakbeat, post-Revolver BeatlesBruce SpringsteenThin Lizzy. Van Zandt wears his influences shamelessly on his sleeve and tells the world exactly what he thinks in his hard-hitting, no compromise lyrics. Good for him. He never betrayed his principles. This album is a bit of an undiscovered gem, actually. Even I, as a Van Zandt fan over many years had somehow allowed it to slip under my radar until recently.

Check out the freaky cover too, man.

Born Again Savage blasts the album into action with a huge, chunky riff backed by Bonham's sledgehammer drums. Camouflage Of Righteousness begins acoustically, before crashing into action with a visceral, punky energy. Van Zandt hammers out the power chords and the lyrics with equal venom. A huge drum intro kicks us into Guns, Drugs And Gasoline, together with some Springsteen-esque Light Of Day guitar riffage. Steven's vocal is punky and abrasive, like Green Day have walked into the studio. A bit of Hendrix guitar "wah-wah-ing" comes in around 3:20. The track is a huge slab of industrial, grimy, thumping rock. The pace calms down slightly for the menacing Face Of God. Only slightly, however, as the song still has a mightily powerful backbeat to it as Van Zandt sort of merges Dylan with U2Willy De VilleLou Reed and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Saint Francis begins slowly, with some mysterious acoustic guitar mixed with a swirling, scratchy U2-esque guitar. It is a brooding, sombre eight minutes long and eventually kicks into a slow, heavy beat as Bonham pounds away like his Dad. The lyrics are questioning and optimistic in their "don't have to be this way..." outlook. This was as serious and introspective a song as Van Zandt had ever laid down. You have to say its guitar is very U2-influenced. Salvation has a Brian May Hammer To Fall-style gigantic, kick-ass riff that is matched by Van Zandt's great vocal. His voice has got a lot better as he has aged - deeper, raspier and less whiny. He can play a killer lead guitar solo too, and duly does on this track. Bonham's drums are mighty once again.

Organize carries on with the frantic, heavy punch of the previous songs. It hits you right between the ears and takes no prisoners. The bass, drum and guitar attack is unrelenting. Flesheater is another superb, crashing, energetic rocker. It certainly continues blowing away the cobwebs, that's for sure. I cannot reiterate enough that Van Zandt is as in your face and committed as I have ever heard him. He contributes a searing guitar solo to this one too, together with some sixties vibes. A bit of Green Tambourine in the riff at one point. Plus bits of Zeppelin'Rock And Roll. If I'm not way off the mark either, it also reminds me of The Beastie BoysYou Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party.

Lust For Enlightenment is a remarkable track, full of sixties psychedelia vibes, dripping with them in fact. Hey man, light up some more incense.... . Van Zandt had never done anything like this before, or since, for that matter. The track fills its last few minutes with some seriously deranged guitar. There also something very Lennon-esque about it. The album's closer, Tongues Of Angels begins with some drill-like guitar before embarking on a mid-pace, solid rock beat, packed full of riffy Zeppelin-style power. It has a great guitar solo from Van Zandt half way through. The track duly ends with some guitar feedback fade-out. Phew! That was some ride.




SOULFIRE (2017)


Soulfire/I'm Coming Back/Blues Is My Business/I Saw The Light/Some Things Just Don't Change/Love On The Wrong Side Of Town/The City Weeps Tonight/Down And Out In New York City/Standing In The Line Of Fire/Saint Valentine's Day/I Don't Want To Go Home/Ride The Night Away        

Steven Van Zandt returns after a long absence to cover some of the material he wrote for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes - I'm Coming BackSome Things Just Don't Change, Love On The Wrong Side Of Town, I Don't Want To Go Home and Ride The Night Away. To be perfectly honest, all of them are more than acceptable - horns to the fore, of course, but, as we all know, Van Zandt is no Southside Johnny vocally. I prefer the Southside Johnny versions to all of them with the possible exception of Some Things Just Don't Change which originally suffered from bad production on Southside's This Time It's For Real album. Actually the same can be applied to Love On The Wrong Side Of Town, to a slightly lesser extent. That said, Steven's voice seems to have deepened with age and is considerably less "whiney" and more gravelly, meaning he sounds more like Southside these days.

               
Regarding the original Van Zandt tunes - Soulfire could well have been written for Johnny as well. Blues Is My Business is a great bluesy, horn-driven rocker and Van Zandt does his best to sound just like Southside. He almost pulls it off here too. Good effort. I Saw The Light sees Steven on great form, this could have been from Southside's Hearts Of Stone or Steven's own Disciples Of SoulThe City Weeps Tonight is a pleasant enough, but inessential 50s doo-wop pastiche.

The cover of James Brown's Down And Out In New York City starts out like a mid-70s blaxploitation instrumental and ends up like a bluesy Southside Johnny album track. Interesting enough, though. Check out that authentic 70s flute sound.

Standing In The Line Of Fire is very much from Disciples Of Soul territory. Rather like the similarly-titled Lyin' In A Bed Of Fire from that very album. Saint Valentine's Day sounds just like 1977 era Bruce Springsteen. Working with The Boss for so long has clearly rubbed off on this one.

The horns attack and "wall of sound" is as raucous as always. The trick is listen to this stuff in short bursts or on occasions when you're lively, before going out for the evening is ideal.



Soulfire Live! (2017)


This is a truly excellent live album from Steven Van Zandt and his reformed Disciples Of Soul, over thirty years after their debut album. Here, in an impressively long (dare I say Springsteen-esque?) set list, they play the whole of their 2017 comeback album Soulfire plus a generous amount of tracks from their debut album and other Van Zandt solo albums. There are several of Van Zandt's versions of songs he wrote in the seventies for Southside Johnny too.

The album bristles with energy and vigour and the musicianship is excellent as indeed is the sound quality, which is big, full, warm and bassy. Van Zandt's live delivery is impressive although his Springsteen-isms on occasions, such as in the lengthy middle part of Until The Good Is Gone are a little derivative, but understandable. One slight downside are the extended spoken intros to many of the songs (again Springsteen-style). I know a lot of people like this sort of thing to be included and feel it adds to the "live" feeling of the recording, so they will be happy with it. Personally, I would rather they just got on with the music. I also feel that way when I am at a gig - just cut the chat and play some music. He has also certainly learnt from his old mate in delivering a lengthy set as well.

Anyway, highlights are a bassy, reggae-influenced Solidarity; a convincingly dubby Leonard Peltier; the afore-mentioned soulful, horn-driven Until The Good Is Gone; a rousing, Motown-esque Angel Eyes; the thoroughly uplifting Blues is My BusinessSaint Valentine's Day and all the others, actually. There isn't a duff track on the album. Van Zandt even covers James Brown's "blaxploitation" funk number in Down And Out In New York City. Great to hear Some Things Just Don't Change too. It really is an excellent, uplifting set. Above are the songs played (without the "tracks" which are actually spoken intros).

* This review refers do the download version, which doesn't include "disc 3" of bonus tracks, just the original concert set list.



Summer Of Sorcery (2019)


Communion/Party Mambo!/Love Again/Vortex/A World Of Our Own/Gravity/Soul Power Twist/Superfly Terraplane/Education/Suddenly You/I Visit The Blues/Summer Of Sorcery   

I have loved Steven Van Zandt’s music since the late seventies. in 2017, he released a superb live album in Soulfire Live and he is back now with a new album of original songs. His sound, though, is very retrospective, and, if you have always liked Asbury Park rock, you will enjoy this. It is nothing new, however, and could have been recorded in 1983. Music like this, though, is somehow timeless, despite not getting much like it these days from anyone. Steven keeps the flame burning. Good on him.
                                            
Communion kicks off with an eighties-style keyboard intro before the horns blast in, then the chunky riffs and Steven's nasal but soulful voice arrives and you instantly know what you're getting. It's 1983 again. After a couple of minutes, however, the track slows down rather pointlessly before settling back into its big, stomping rhythm. then it does it again for some backing vocal harmonies. For this reason, the track, which lasts six minutes, sounds a little bit disjointed. Four minutes of the main beat would have been fine, for me.

Steven has always liked a bit of a Latin mambo rhythm (Bitter Fruit from Freedom - No Compromise) and he gives us that with the suitably upbeat groove of Party Mambo!. He contributes an excellent guitar solo on this one. Time now for some Southside Johnny meets Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park? You bet. Love Again takes us right back to 1977-78. Great stuff. If you loved the music Steven, Bruce and Johnny did in that period, you will love this, right down to the obligatory Clemons-esque blaring saxophone solo. The ghost of the big man is alive on this track. Vortex is an atmospheric number that owes a bit to the "Blaxploitation" soundtracks of the mid-seventies. It is a funky rock number with some evocative strings and brass. It also features some Bobbi Humphrey-influenced flute.

 

Then we get an unadulterated, horn-driven glorious slice of Asbury Park-ism in the wonderful A World Of Our Own. Full of boardwalk romantic lyrics and “sha-na-na” backing vocals. When I was in my early twenties I would have absolutely loved this to distraction. Now, at sixty, it gives me a warm, nostalgic glow but it doesn’t reach me as it would when I was falling in love every other week. Oh, what the heck, when I hear those horns, saxophones and the Ronettes-style melody, I love it. Good old Steve. He is taking me higher and higher. By the end of it I feel quite emotional. The whole track is incredibly like the music Van Zandt wrote and produced for Southside Johnny from 1976-78 as well, it could almost be him and his band, The Asbury Jukes.

Gravity has an insistent, semi-funky beat with some strange, sonorous backing vocals. It has that slightly disco feel to it that Southside Johnny also used a lot in the eighties, complete with synthesiser riffs. Soul Power Twist is a lively, horn-driven piece of rock and soul of the sort that populated the two albums Springsteen produced for Gary "US" Bonds in the early eighties. Superfly Terraplane is also very Southside-inspired in its rock’n’roll meets blues rock sweaty beat, as used on Southside's first, Van Zandt-produced, album. It even finds time for some Mariachi-style brass in amongst the frantic, full-on attack.

Education is a re-make of the track from 1988's Revolution album. It sounds pretty much the same, so I am not quite sure the point of this. Suddenly You finds Steven going laid-back and late night jazzy in feel. Unfortunately his voice feels very out of place on this type of track, the quiet, sumptuous backing highlighting his limitations. Thankfully, I Visit The Blues restores the quality on a big, brassy early Southside-style blues.

Summer Of Sorcery is just bloomin' marvellous - an uplifting, horn-powered glorious anthem that has Steven semi-speaking his vocal quietly and movingly, Van Morrison-style, (with a touch of Sam Cooke at the end) as those magnificent horns take us to Heaven (with that saxophone again too). It is as if Steven has hooked up with MorrisonTom PettySpringsteenSouthside JohnnyClarence Clemons and Willy De Ville. Valedictory. Forty-five years of God-given music. Thank you Steven.




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