After press time, Steven Van Zandt announced the cancellation of his upcoming tour, due to sinusitis. He will no longer appear in New Orleans on October 1, 2019, as previously expected – Ed.
Little Steven Van Zandt calls his 14-member band the Disciples of Soul. A singer, songwriter, actor, radio host and founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Van Zandt truly is a disciple of soul. A child of the 1960s, he still believes music can change the world.
During the past few years—while Springsteen appeared in Springsteen on Broadway and made the Western Stars album and concert film—Van Zandt revived his solo career. His Summer of Sorcery album and its corresponding tour are genre-sweeping celebrations of the 1960s and ’70s music that inspired Van Zandt, Springsteen and their music-loving generation.
Before Springsteen and the E Street Band regroup to record their upcoming album, Van Zandt’s United States tour with the Disciples of Soul will bring him to the House of Blues in New Orleans on October 1.
With the Disciples of Soul and the E Street Band, haven’t you been playing New Orleans for more than 40 years?
We’ve been coming down there since ’75, ’76. Very early on. It’s a wonderful, historic music city. A lot of what we do was born there. I’ve always been a big fan of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, all the way to Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey and the whole gang.
You resurrected your solo career in recent years. Were you simply too busy during the previous two decades to do music beyond the E Street Band?
When I did my five albums in the ’80s, I said, “I’m going to do five conceptual albums. I’m going to learn about myself and talk about what’s going on in the world. I’ll be the extreme political guy.” I wanted to have my own identity. I did those five albums and then I was like “Okay. I said what I wanted to say.”
Later, from 1999 to 2007, you got busy playing the role of Silvio Dante in The Sopranos.
David Chase asked me to come be an actor. I said, “Well, I’ll give that a shot.” And that was 14 years between The Sopranos and Lillehammer [in which he plays a gangster hiding out in Norway]. And then Bruce put the band back together. Before I knew it, 20 years went by.
What brought you back to being a front man with the Disciples of Soul?
I didn’t plan on coming back in. But then a guy said, “Throw a band together, man. Play my blues festival.” We played about a dozen of my old songs and I reconnected with them for the first time in 20 years. I was like, “Man, this stuff has some value.” So, we did a record of songs I’d written for other people (Soulfire). Then we toured and, suddenly, new ideas started coming to me.
With your new Summer of Sorcery album, you plotted a different course from the political songwriting you did in the ’80s.
I didn’t want to be political or autobiographical anymore. I wanted to fictionalize my work. I said, “I’ll do 12 little movies and play a different character in each one.” That’s exactly what happened.
But you are still on a mission with the new music you’re making?
Now may be the darkest time in our civilization since World War II. I’m not exaggerating. It’s even worse than the Vietnam War era—because I’ve never seen such a rise of fascism, nationalism, white supremacy, religious extremism. It’s going crazy all around the world. And all these agreements are being broken. Instead of us heading towards global unity, we’re heading back into isolation and darkness and fear.
I said, “For me to be useful now, I need to write a record with optimism in it. We need a little hope. We need a little fun. I mean, this is getting ugly.” So, that’s what Summer of Sorcery is and that’s what the show is. I leave politics out. It’s a fun dance party. My usefulness right now is transporting people to another place for two hours, because the real world is just so ugly right now.
The album also has a big sound. Were you going for a Phil Spector Wall of Sound kind of thing?
Yeah, but it’s everything from Allen Toussaint to Phil Spector to Lieber and Stoller to Motown to the Four Seasons. Which are big sounds. Arranging the horns and the strings and background vocals so that they interweave and complement each other is so much fun for me.
And you’re reproducing that big band sound on stage, too?
The past two records, I’ve locked into that bigger sound that I started in Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. I think you’ve got to reproduce the sound you’re recording. And it’s a sound people are not going to hear often, even in New Orleans. Not too many bands travel with 15 people on stage and 35 on the road. It’s a big machine. I hope people come and check it out, because they ain’t never seen a band like this. These are the best musicians in New York. Everybody wants to hire them. But they’ve been loyal to me for two years and I really appreciate that. And we just keep getting better and better and better. It’s blowing minds.
Do you get a different kind of satisfaction from the Disciples of Soul than you get from the E Street Band?
Oh, yeah. I’m very proud of the E Street Band and my contributions to it, but it’s Bruce’s work. Disciples of Soul is my work. It’s a whole different thing.
Even though you’ve been making music since you were teenager, you sound more enthused and creative than ever.
It’s a rebirth. Who figured on that? I didn’t.
You’re just back from a European tour. New Orleans musicians who tour Europe talk about how appreciated they are over there.
The Europeans have a love for American music that Americans don’t. We don’t honor our own artists and our own artistic history. We just don’t. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a shame. But over there, once they’re a fan of yours, they’re a fan for life. It’s not like America, where, if you don’t have a hit record, you get abandoned.
With both the E Street Band and the Disciples of Soul, we’re luckier than most. Our audiences stick with us. But not everybody [American bands and artists] went to Europe in the ’70s and ’80s. It was not a normal thing to do, actually. But thank God we went over there when we did. We can sustain the rest of our days in Europe without a problem. We also still have a great American audience, but for those who don’t, they got nowhere to go.
Many stars fell far from wealth and fame, such as Sly Stone, who spiraled into poverty and homelessness.
That’s just a crime—one of the greatest artists of all time; and somebody who I modeled the Disciples of Soul around. Our thing is patterned after his, which was multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-genre.
When you launched your Underground Garage radio show, did you want to create a program you wanted to hear?
Exactly. I turned the radio on one day and I’m like, “What the hell happened to music?” I said, “Man, it’s just not fair that our generation had all the fun.” Really, later generations have had diluted music. I said, “It ain’t right. We’ve got to preserve this stuff and pass it along and make sure future generations have access to greatness.” Greatness—which is what my generation experienced because the 1950s and ’60s was a renaissance period. It’ll be studied for hundreds of years to come, I believe. That’s when the greatest art being made was also the most commercial. Ain’t never gonna see that again.
What was your first experience in a band?
At 15, I was as a singer in somebody else’s band. By 16, I become a bandleader. I picked the songs, sang lead, played lead guitar player and made the arrangements. It was my band. But what got it all started was, basically, February 9, 1964—the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. We all had our minds blown by this whole new thing called a band. We’d never seen a band before, really—because it had been individuals. We might have known Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley. And we might have known doo wop and instrumental groups, girl groups. But we never saw a band that played and sang and wrote songs. So, it was like, “Wow. What is this?’ Everything about the Beatles was new and radical and wonderful. Their hair, their clothes, how witty they were, how smart they were. Their accents. They opened up a whole new world for us misfits, freaks and outcasts. Believe me, there was a bunch of us who weren’t going to fit into society.
But were the Beatles so good as to be a bit intimidating?
They didn’t exactly invite you in because they were just so good. They were incredibly sophisticated. The harmony and everything about them was perfect. But, luckily, four months later, the Rolling Stones came on The Hollywood Palace. Their hair wasn’t perfect—except for Brian Jones. They wore different clothes. They didn’t have any harmonies. They were the first punk band and they did invite you in. They made it accessible. After that, it was like, “That’s what I wanna do.” O