It might have been a short lead time for E Street Band alumni and influential New Jersey singer-songwriter-producer Steven Van Zandt, but the faithful in attendance got more than their money’s worth on Saturday night.
After all, Van Zandt, aka Little Steven (or Sil from The Sopranos if that’s how you know him), is used to being on stage three hours plus with Bruce Springsteen, so 2.5 hours was a walk in the park for the 68-year old.
Metro City was sparsely attended but filled gradually during a support set from Van Zandt’s mate Dom Mariani out front of Datura4. The Stems and DM3 local legend commented that it was a much bigger stage than the one they’d played the night before as they brought the upfront blues rock (with an emphasis on the rock), Mariani shredding his way through highlights such as stretched out 2016 tune Confide In Me and rampaging closer Looper from this year’s Blessed Is The Boogie LP.
Van Zandt would later comment that The Stems were one of the first groups he played on his radio show in thanking Mariani, and everyone who hit the stage throughout the night felt like part of an extended family.
Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul themselves are a 15-piece outfit featuring a five-piece horn section, three dynamic backing singers (complete with matching afros) and multiple percussionists, keyboardists and guitarists, who doubled on accordion and mandolin as needed.
Like the E Street Band at their best, the chemistry on stage was undeniable from the moment they opened with a barnstorming cover of Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Van Zandt surrounding himself with legendary musicians, such as Lowell Levinger of The Youngbloods on Rhodes. There were plenty of cuts from unreasonably good 2017 comeback record Soulfire, with the title track and Love on the Wrong Side of Town – a revamped version of his 1977 Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes tune co-written by Springsteen – early highlights.
Speaking of barnstorming, Van Zandt cheekily suggested they’d play “a song you might know,” before launching into the hit he wrote for Jimmy Barnes, Ride the Night Away, which had fists pumping and fans singing along in the cheesiest but arguably most fun part of the night.
The solos throughout were incredible, from ripping trombone in Etta James cover Blues Is My Business to James Brown’s Down and Out in New York City, which stretched out to nearly 10 minutes as every member of the horn section came to the front of the stage, from trumpet to flute to saxophone, and yes, more of that awesome trombone.
Van Zandt was nothing but charismatic, offering plenty of insights as he welcomed teachers (who were welcome to attend free if they signed up for his music curriculum – also free), talked politics (“bullshit is the universal language,” he quipped memorably) and led us through the gospel-tinged 1982 favourite Until the Good Is Gone, which ended in a huge crescendo to be one of the night’s high points.
“It’s more important than ever that we gather in cathedrals like this,” he said during the latter, and it’s tempting to trust the visionary who united the likes of Bono, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Peter Garrett, Gil Scott-Heron, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Run DMC, Springsteen and many more for the revolutionary 1985 anti-apartheid supergroup album Sun City. Its title track was a standout in the encore as most band members sang a verse; a galvanising call to arms and reminder that Van Zandt’s place in rock and roll history amounts to much more than his well-known role as The Boss’s sideman.
Photos by Linda Dunjey