Strip away The Sopranos, the Underground Garage, the bandana-clad Springsteen sidekick role, the hyper-political Sun City all-star single and what you get is a true believer in the power of rock & roll. Little Steven, the guitar-wielding Jersey kid who played the oldies circuit with the Dovells before running off with the E Street Band, is fluid in the modalities of sweet soul, vintage rhythm & blues, stripped down rock and that sweeping Leiber-Stoller song sense.
After a solo career that leaned more to the political, albeit Tri State area-steeped musicality, Soulfire is Van Zandt’s first true homage to his roots. Mining songs from across his production work for others—with nods to Chicago blues (Etta James’ “The Blues Is My Business”) and Blaxploitation (“Down and Out in New York City,” from James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack)—the project serves as a career retrospective for a solo artist who’s now truly emerging.
With a tight wrist figure flickering against an electric guitar neck, “Soulfire” kicks off Steven Van Zandt’s first solo project in almost 20 years with an exultant flurry of wide open vocals, horn section rising and the backbeat pushing forward. Rockier than Motown or the Sound of Philadelphia, this is a joyous invitation to live and love that breaks down to a rhythm track and an exhortative enjoinder.
Having produced records for exemplary vocalists Southside Johnny Lyon and Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Steven’s voice isn’t the instrument of his collaborators. But the porous shaft of muscle’n’mean brings a passion that’s utterly lacking in self-consciousness. In a world where prettified and production-enhanced voices are standard, this is a real man bringing every ounce to the table.
That commitment to the music—the sounds that made him, and that he’s intending to make—provides a deeper meaning to the Asbury Jukes’ “I’m Coming Back.” A pledge of commitment to a lover abandoned, the brass sliding and bass throbbing fat and muscular, he reinvents an already fervent love song as a manifesto to the music.
At a time when rock & roll could be deemed quaint, when ‘60s soul is nostalgia, feeling the vitality and need on the cascading, staccato-blasting, string- swept betrayal reckoning “Love On The Wrong Side of Town” and the thundering pound down “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” are their own urgency. Beyond memory lane, these forms, properly rendered, are as dynamic as ever.
To understand that footloose innocence, let the Spanish-feeling horns fade as an acoustic guitar down strokes with abandon, then a Wurlitzer emerges. When the band falls in on Southside Johnny’s original breakout “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” the song moves from straight desire to the appreciation of a moment worth hanging onto. Hang on. Absolutely.