I think I may have mentioned it last week – I saw “Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul” at the Ames Center last Friday.
First – a word about the Ames Center, a place I’d only been to for a company meeting before. For a room that’s clearly designed for community theater and high school music productions, it’s a wonderful venue for a rock and roll show for people who don’t want to go do the club thing anymore.
So here’s my TL:DR review.
On the one hand, Steve Van Zandt’s first album, “Men Without Women”, is one of my five favorite records of the rock and roll era. I’ve written about it before. You can even find it online, these days. It’s worth it.
I looked forward to the show for months – missing the original Disciples was one of my great regrets 35 years ago.
But I won’t say there wasn’t a little trepidation.
Reviews I heard from friends who saw earlier incarnations of the band said I may have done well waiting; back then, Van Zandt had a penchant for PLAYING REALLY REALLY LOUD, as in “Husker Du called and said turn it down please” loud, to the point where it was unenjoyable even for unreconstructed rockers like me.
And of course, back then he was very strident about his politics. He was the guy who wrote “Sun City”, the all-star rock-hop protest song about South Africa, and by far the biggest hit of his musical career…
…and let’s just say he started at the peak. His musical activism went downhill from there. How far downhill? The Alarm called and said “Hey, maybe dial it back a skosh?”
Point being, I don’t mind a little cognitive dissonance in my art – if I did, I’d be listening to country and Ted Nugent and little else. But getting browbeaten over politics when you’ve dropped a stack of money on a night out gets old fast.
But a few months back, I read that after a couple of election cycles of being very politically active, Bruce Springsteen had noted (around the time he got his Tony for his Broadway show) that he was dialing it back; he was starting to realize half his audience was getting tired of being browbeaten (even those of us conservatives for whom his music resonated for reasons utterly connected to our beliefs). I think Steve (Bruce’s longtime bandmate) got the message, mostly; at one point, he noted from the stage “…this is gonna be a *refuge* from politics”, to all kinds of cheering. And he largely did. More later.
And the volume was, well, perfect. Not too loud to feel like we were at an old-folks concert (although there were people at the show in walkers and wheelchairs, which would be just too clever for a writer to come up with if the night had been fiction). Not too quiet, so I could feel just a *little* rock and roll-y.
The band? Well, for starters, it was yuge. Fifteen people. Five piece horn section (including sax player Ed Manion, who in addition to being a longtime member of the Asbury Jukes and the Max Weinberg Seven, was the only other person onstage who’d played on Men Without Women), guitar, bass, drums, two keyboards (including Lowell Levinger, who was the guitar player in “The Youngbloods” fifty years ago, and doubled on mandolin and some middle-eastern bowed instrument that I couldn’t quite place), a percussionist with more gear than the drummer, Van Zandt on guitar, and three backup singers that didn’t stop dancing for two hours and occasionally almost stole the show.
And they were really, really good. What’s more to say?
The music? Well, unless you’re a Jersey shore music trivia buff, you probably don’t know most of it; if you are, most of it has been in your DNA since you were in your teens and twenties.
They opened with a raveup of “Sweet Soul Music”, the Arthur Conley one-hit wonder from fifty years back, and followed up with:
- Soul Fire (title from their current album).
- Lying in a Bed of Fire (opener from “Men Without Women).
- Inside of Me
- Blues Is My Business (the Chicago blues classic)
- Love On The Wrong Side Of Town – which Van Zandt changed up from the Asbury Jukes’ single version by rearranging it as more of a Phil Spector-meets-British Invasion sound, with a couple of jangling Rickenbacker guitars to complete the effect. I hope I can find this version out there somewhere – it was a welcome update to a classic warhorse).
- Til The Good Is Gone (complete with audience singalong over the out ramp – and yes, I had been looking forward to that).
- Angel Eyes – my favorite song off of Men Without Women. Almost a spiritual experience for me. You get it or you don’t.
- I Am A Patriot – a reggae song off of “Voice of America”, and after Sun City maybe his best-known song – it gets played at stadiums constantly. You’ve probably heard it and don’t know it.
- Under The Gun – with a long, extended percusson intro, oboe solo, and quarter-tone departure that was, musically, one of the highlights of the night.
- Some Things Just Don’t Change – a song Van Zandt wrote for the Jukes a long time ago- .
- Saint Valentine’s Day – the big single off the current album. Pretty sure he wrote and released it to prove he could still do retro soul. And he certainly can.
- Standing In The Line Of Fire – a song Van Zandt wrote for Gary US Bonds during Bonds’ comeback in the eighties.
- I Saw The LIght – Another one off of Soulfire
- Salvation – the lone cut from 1999’s, “Born Again Savage”, Van Zandt’s fifth and last solo album before last year.
- The City Weeps Tonight – an attempt at a doo-wop number with a not-very-subtle political undertone – two things that just don’t mix. The evening’s low point.
- Down and Out In New York City – an early-70’s James Brown cover featuring solos by the entire horn section (and they were very, very good) – another musical highlight.
- Princess of Little Italy – featuring Lowell Levinger on Mandolin and keyboard player Andy Burton filling Danny Federici’s shoes on accordion
- Ride The Night Away – a huge raveup of the Jimmy Barnes classic.
- Bitter Fruit – a song from “Freedom No Compromise”, Van Zandt’s 1987 worldbeat excursion and extended Anti-Reagan screed, an album that prompted my drummer at the time – a self-described socialist – to ask “Has Steve completely run out of ideas”? That being said, “Bitter Fruit” turned into a huge party raveup, with the entire band out downstage all but dancing in the crowd. Easily the most-improved song of the evening.
- Forever – Van Zandt can’t *not* play Forever. That’d be like Paul McCartney not doing “Yesterday”, or the who eschewing “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.Heck – I can’t not include “Forever”, and it’s not my show!
Why would he not finish with it? For half the crowd there, it would have been one of the night’s highlights, even if he’d just phoned it in. It’s of the most wonderful singles in rock history, one of the best songs of the early ’80s by any rational measure. And they stuck the landing. Simply glorious.
That was the last song – although the band didn’t even bother putting their instruments down before the encore, the Van Zandt-penned Asbury Jukes classic “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”. And like every Asbury Jukes show, that’s where it ended.
Well, so I’d hoped. But no.
Van Zandt followed it up with “Out Of The Darkness”, Van Zandt’s biggest solo single (in terms of chart position, anyway), from 1985, his attempt at an eighties stye anthem.
And this was the most dissonant part, for me – because as dominated as as the evening was by old soul, R&B and blues covers and over two hours of painstakingly reconstructed Stax/Volt style retro-soul, “Darkness” was by far the most dated sounding song of the night.
But the crowd loved it
And I loved the show. But you probably caught that.