Having served as Bruce Springsteen’s real-life right-hand man since the ‘70s and the fictional consigliere to Tony Soprano on TV’s “The Sopranos,” you might call Little Steven Van Zandt the ultimate sidekick. But that would be selling short Van Zandt, who has forged a busy and successful career outside of the E Street Band and the legendary small-screen crime family.
Van Zandt has led his own group, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, since the ‘80s, and it’s been a busy outfit as of late, with a studio album, “Soulfire,” released in 2017, a 3-CD live album, “Soulfire Live!” released in August (special 7-record vinyl edition coming in December; Blu-Ray video coming in February) and a tour kicking off Thursday, Oct. 18 at the FM Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Van Zandt has dubbed the dates the “Teacher Solidarity Tour,” with teachers (and a guest) admitted for free, and invited to attend, also for free, a one-hour music curriculum workshop before the concert put on by his TeachRock foundation.
“Basically, all the art classes in America got cut because of this No Child Left Behind legislation, so we’re trying to find a way of keeping the arts in schools,” Van Zandt says during a recent phone conversation. “There’s something called STEM basic curriculum (Science Technology Engineering Math), and we’re trying to turn STEM to STEAM, putting the A, which is Arts, back into the curriculum. That’s our mission.”
The perpetually bandanna-wearing bandleader points out that “first of all, it’s just a regular tour, it’s open to the public like a normal tour.”
“But in addition to the normal tour aspect, my foundation has a music history curriculum that’s been created over the past 10 years, and we’re basically going public with it for the first year now. We connected the two things, the tour with the foundation. So we’re able to invite teachers to come for free as a way of saying thank you and solidarity and show we’re making a point in towns where teachers were on strike or almost on strike.
“Teachers are an underappreciated part of our working class, I feel. They need a certain amount of professional development every year for the teaching certificate, and they have to pay for it, which is incredible. Our professional development is free. So between soundcheck and the show, we’ll do an hour or two of professional development, and it’s free for them,?
The curriculum, with more than 120 lessons, is available at http://teachrock.org/.
“Soulfire Live!,” recorded at concerts in North America and Europe last year, includes Little Steven standouts like “Standing In The Line Of Fire” and “I Don’t Want To Go Home” along with cover versions of “Groovin’ Is Easy” (Electric Flag), “Blues Is My Business” (Etta James) and “Down And Out In New York City” (James Brown). The third CD focuses on performances that feature special guests, including Springsteen, former Bon Jovi guitarist and long-time Van Zandt friend Richie Sambora and Jerry Miller of Moby Grape.
Asked if it’s strange for him and Springsteen to flip the frontman-sideman roles, Van Zandt says, “Nah.”
“We’ve been doing this for so long. We were constantly switching bands; in the early days I’d be in is band and he’d be in my band. The switch from frontman to sideman, and it can change at any given moment. Obviously he hasn’t spent a whole lot of time being a sideman, but he enjoys it.”
The vinyl release includes a set recorded at the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool.
“I had an idea that we could kind of pay tribute to The Beatles, because in the old days they played lunchtime sets at The Cavern Club, and that’s where [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein first saw them. I don’t think they’ve done that since. It was just a whim of mine, and the owner and manager let us do it.”
The 15-piece band he’s bringing to Wilkes-Barre is “very powerful.”
“The main thing right now that I am emphasizing is sheer musicality,” says Van Zandt. “You are going to hear pretty much a big church of the history of rock and roll in our show. It just so turns out that a lot of the history is also my own influences, which I tried to capture on ‘Soulfire.’ … It’s 15 pieces and very powerful. Ten or 12 different genres of music from doo-wop and blues and soul music to folk rock and hard rock and cinematic-type stuff.”
His love and knowledge of music and its history is also on display on the syndicated radio show “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” which has been airing on terrestrial radio stations since 2002. He is also the program director for the SiriusXM satellite channels “Underground Garage” and “Outlaw Country”
Van Zandt, who in 1985 led the anti-apartheid effort that resulted in the song “Sun City,” which featured U2, Bob Dylan, Run DMC and Tom Petty, is shying away from politics right now.
“The idea of the show is to transport people for two, two and a half hours from our insane world right now,” he explains. “For the first time in my life I’m not being very political. My first five records were very political. I’m giving people a break from the politics. Let me give everybody a sanctuary from that and emphasize common ground. Let’s see if we can spend some time together that’s not adversarial. That’s the context of the show.”
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul will perform Thursday, Oct. 18 at the FM Kirby Center (71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701) at 7:30 p..m. For tickets and more info, visit the venue website.
Lead photo by Joe Lopez