Little Steven rocked the inner sanctuary of the Auckland Town Hall last Saturday night with great respect for the architecture. Pity so few people turned up. One of rock’s greatest contributors as co-founder of Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Dukes, and longtime sideman and consigliere to the Bruce, Steven Van Zandt is a seasoned pro, and the lack of numbers did not deter him from putting on his full show, all the more poignant as the closing gig of a two year long odyssey.
The Soulfire Tour had its genesis when Little Steven went to London for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday and was persuaded to put his band together as part of the festivities. An album followed. The story of his life, as he described it to me in our interview a few weeks back. Read the interview here.
Songs that rock, and songs that turn your soul on fire...
Songs that inspired him, songs he wrote for others, songs he wrote with Bruce Springsteen, and songs he wrote for himself, including a couple from his new album out next month. Songs that haven’t been given their chance to join the ranks of Southside, Springsteen, New Joisey anthems, because Little Steven has been busy acting, or touring with the E-Street Band. Songs that rock, and songs that turn your soul on fire.
Thank goodness that Byron Bay brought him and his big band our way on their way home; so disappointing that Auckland didn’t turn up. It happens, I guess, especially these days when we are spoilt for choice at certain times of the year. Now for example, and January/February seem to be such times. Norah Jones, Mavis Staples, Hozier, Billie Eilish, Shakey Graves and Larkin Poe all within 6 days. Is Auckland all rocked out?
Happily, those few who did turn up had a lot of fun and found the freedom to be more exuberant in their appreciation. So there is that in mitigation and support of our city which aspires to UNESCO Heritage status as a City of Music.
At 8.15 on come the band of 14, filling the Auckland Town Hall stage, and then there he is, long flowing coat, equally long scarf, bad-ass bandana, the man himself. Almost (some might say definitely) upstaged by the three lovely ladies, Jessica Wagner, Sara Devine and Tania Jones on backing vocals, sequinned, afroed, bell-bottomed, dancing and gesticulating frenetically to put some punk into the Motown look. Mesmerising.
And the songs that inspired him, starting with a rousing cover of Arthur Conley’s 1967 hit, Sweet Soul Music. Little Steven playing all the power chords, and then some scorching lead. Little Steven the gangster becomes Little Steven the Axeman. Be very afraid...
Etta James’ Blues Is My Business shortly after his first audience interaction describing this night as the last night of a two-year odyssey in support of school teachers everywhere. A philanthropic effort aimed at putting the A for Arts firmly into the STEM of Science Technology, Engineering and Math. Get a head of STEAM up to support the history of music as a teaching tool, a context setter, an attention getter for those kids resistant to the very idea of learning. America has lots of them, but the message is universal.
Little Steven the bluesman, the band setting down a funky groove. Some things Just Don’t Change, written for Southside Johnny but in homage to David Ruffin of the Temptations in particular and the Detroit Sound in general. A little Iggy, a little Motown, a little of Mr Ruffin, the king of despair.
The music gets darker and more sinister, a James Brown cover Down and Out in New York City reflecting the early 70s genre of movies labelled Blaxploitation. Isaac Hayes, Shaft, Super Fly, movies and soundtracks which signalled a resurgence of African American artists into the mainstream. Crossover success stories.
Songs he wrote for and with others: Soulfire, the tour title song, written for the Danish band The Breakers; Love on The Wrong Side Of Town, with a Beatle-ish intro, sounding classic Springsteen, and indeed was written with Bruce in 1977 for Southside Johnny; Saint Valentines Day, written for Norwegian all girl-band The Cocktail Slippers in 2009; and of course who knew or remembered that he co-wrote Ride The Night Away with and for Jimmy Barnes?
A host of songs he wrote for himself. The one about the radio: Until The Good Is Gone reflecting on the impact of technology on modern day culture, when back in the day, there were none of today’s social media distractions and only four channels on TV, so what do you do: listen to records, play your guitars, and turn on the radio. The spiritual nourishment of real live music was our early day social media. I’ll drink to that!!
Princess of Little Italy: One of the evenings truly great songs, with the horn section retiring, Andy on accordion, and featuring Lowell “Banana” Levinger from the legendary Youngbloods upfront strumming, instead of hidden behind the lovely ladies tinkering on his keyboard.
His political anthem from the 80s (not going to play) Sun City; and a host of others, including two songs from next month’s new release, Love Again, and Superfly Terraplane.
Two and a half hours of non-stop energy and commitment...
A journey through 50 years of rock and soul, through Little Stevens' adult years, through his eyes, and through his ears. An evening of big band bad-ass wall of sounds, a spectacle without Spector (the only wall he sees these days has no sound…). And every horn imaginable, all the saxes, the trombone, the trumpet and even the flute. 5 horn players - Eddie Manion (Horn Director, Baritone Sax), Stan Harrison (Tenor Sax, Alto Sax, Flute, Oboe), Clark Gayton (Trombone), Ravi Best (Trumpet) and Ron Tooley (Trumpet). Rich Mercurio on drums, Anthony Almonte the percussionist, 2 keyboards by Andy Burton (B3 Organ, Accordion, Synthesizers) and Lowell “Banana” Levinger (Piano, Mandolin, Esraj), 2 guitars in the hands of Marc Ribler and Little Steven himself, Jack Daley on bass and the three lovely ladies.
Two and a half hours of non-stop energy and commitment. An optimistic farewell song about the future and the power of the millennial generation (Out of the Darkness), and he is gone.
Too big perhaps for the Town Hall, but then again the Town Hall on Saturday night, to Auckland’s great shame, was too big for the audience.
Where was everybody?
Little Steven's Setlist
- Sweet Soul Music
- Lying in A Bed of Fire
- Blues Is My Business
- Love on The Wrong Side Of Town
- Until the Good Is Gone
- Angel Eyes
- Under the Gun
- Some Things Just Don’t Change
- St Valentine’s Day
- I saw The Light
- Down and Out In New York City
- Princess of Little Italy
- Love Again
- Superfly Terraplane
- Ride the Night Away
- Bitter Fruit
- I Don’t Want to Go Home
- Sun City
- Out of The Darkness