In between playing a sideman to the mob on television and to Bruce Springsteen on stage, Steve Van Zandt’s solo career has rather been on the backburner; the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hasn’t had a full-length record out under his own name since 1999.
But with the E Street Band relieved of duties whilst The Boss hunkers down on Broadway, Van Zandt has returned to his roots with Soulfire, a hot and horn-heavy throwback to late-night Jersey boardwalk music.
Accompanied by a reassembled iteration of his mid-Eighties outfit The Disciples of Soul, Little Steven’s homage to youth paints himself firmly as an unabashed standard-bearer of old-time tunes – albeit one whose bar-room boogie-downs are scored by lugubrious undertones for better and worse.
Back in Leeds for the first time since Springsteen opened the First Direct Arena in 2013, at the city’s O2 Academy, Van Zandt, hangdog grin and ubiquitous bandana in tow, throws himself into a two-and-a-half-hour set with a brazenness befitting Soulfire’s party-starting palate. The album – mostly originals penned for other artists and a handful of genre covers – is virtually rolled out in full here, amplified by the Disciples’ beefed-up, brassy sound.
The title track, one penned with Danish band The Breakers, throws lashings of gospel organ under scratchy riffs; Ride the Night Away, written for Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes, stacks hard-edged arena anthemics front-and-centre over the blaring saxophone accompaniments.
The City Sleeps Tonight, mournfully steeped in doo-wop harmonics, offers some appropriate respite but also exposes the currents of encroaching fatalism underneath the escapism. Van Zandt, grizzled as he is, still seems in relatively good health; his potent take on Tom Petty’s Even the Losers however is a pointed tribute-cum-reminder that the breed of guitar-slinging heroes he belongs to won’t be around for ever.
The Blaxploitation wah-wah pedal funk of James Brown’s Down and Out in New York City serves only to reinforce such notions, shimmering and elegiac.
If this truly is the sense of an ending, Little Steven is adamant he will not go quietly into the night though, recapturing the celebratory groove with defiant singalongs like Forever and I Don’t Want to Go Home.
By the time Out of the Darkness chugs to its conclusion, Van Zandt has shrouded whatever prospective sorrows the future holds in his love-letter to the open-highway heartland; a big, bold, panorama of the rock-and-roll past bathed in warmth and affection.