Album Reviews

Little Steven


Artist:     Little Steven

Album:     Soulfire

Label:     Wicked Cool/Big Machine/Ume

Release Date:     5/19/2017


As summer approaches, we get a big blast of that Jersey Shore rock ‘n’ soul with horns from Little Steven, his first solo album in almost two decades. Bruce’s sidekick and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Stevie Van Zandt hearkens back to the early days, revisiting songs that he had a part in as performer, producer, arranger, and songwriter. Think of the sound of Southside Johnny and Asbury Jukes’ first three albums and you’ll have the context. “I’ve always been very thematic with my work, very conceptual,” Van Zandt says. “….I’m kind of my own genre at this point. So I tried to pick material that you added it all up, really represented me. So there are a couple of covers, a couple of new songs, and some of what I feel are the best songs I’ve written or co-written over the years. This record is me doing me.”

The catalyst for the album was a tour for Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul to London last October in preparation for London’s BluesFest 2016. Steven put together a 15-piece band, including a full horn section and three backing vocalists. Because the band had learned 22 songs, Van Zandt wanted to capitalize on the strong momentum and make an album. He arranged, co-produced, and recorded the album at his own NYC studio, helped by Grammy Award-winning producer Geoff Sanoff. As you would expect from Little Steven, he can call in the giants for mixing and mastering, giving those honors to Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig. Notably, background vocals on “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The City Weeps Tonight” are from the a cappela group, the Persuasions. Much of the music was directed by guitarist Marc Ribler, who worked with Van Zandt on Darlene Love’s 2015 Introducing Darlene Love.

To say this is a big sound is a ridiculous understatement. This is enormously powerful, perhaps overcompensating for Van Zandt’s retreat from solo work. He says, “I betrayed the work and I want to fix that. I didn’t give up on the material—there were a lot of other factors—but I do have a sense of wanting some redemption for it.” He provides nice explanations for each track. Original versions of five tracks can be found on Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes’ albums. One tune is co-written with a leader of a Danish band, one is a blues tune recorded by Etta James, one was co-written with Gary U.S. Bonds, and one was originally intended for Nancy Sinatra, but was recorded by the Cocktail Slippers.

“Down and Out in New York City” originally appeared on James Brown’s 1973 Black Caesar soundtrack. Steven offers this explanation: “I love the blaxploitation genre. We do a special on the radio show every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we call it ‘Blaxploitation Friday.’…….We did it for BluesFest, came up with a really cool groove and a new horn line and made it our own. It has a bit of a jazzy element, which I explored with my Lilyhammer score, but like the blues song; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever recorded before on a solo album so it was nice to get those genres onto a record.”

This will shake your windows and rattle your walls. Soak in this glorious sound!
—Jim Hynes

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