For his first solo album in eighteen years, Little Steven Van Zandt looks back at his lengthy history in order to chart a course for the future. In some ways Soulfire is a direct sequel to his 1982 debut Men Without Women. The new album proudly emphasizing his soul and R&B roots bypassing the hard rock (Voice of America, Born Again Savage) and rock-funk (Freedom No Compromise , Revolution) excursions he has also taken.
The new album kicks off with the title track "Soulfire", an inspirational message that introduces prominent female backing vocals for the first time on a Little Steven record. Van Zandt reassuringly offers protection, telling his listeners, "when there's nobody left to depend on, I'll be right here!"
Next Van Zandt revisits "I'm Coming Back" which he originally wrote for the 1991 album Better Days by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (which Steven also produced). Here he reclaims his powerful mission statement, sticking with the proven arrangement. "I'm Coming Back" also boasts one of Van Zandt's tidiest couplets, "I don't want to confuse you if you've found something else, but I don't want to lose you just when I found myself".
It should be noted that the Better Days project also has a Van Zandt composition called "Soul's On Fire" although there is no direct connection with this album's title track aside from the reoccurring metaphor.
The first cover song to ever appear on a Little Steven record, "Blues Is My Business" was originally heard on Etta James' 2003 Let's Roll album. Of course Van Zandt can't help but borrow from various sources, in this case copping the intro from the Jimi Hendrix 1968 track "Crosstown Traffic".
"I Saw The Light" is a motivated little mover with an opening line, "baby I ain't never learned to say I'm sorry" that echoes "I never have learned to apologize" from 1982's Men Without Women title track. The themes of "I Saw The Light" place it as an unofficial follow-up to 1984's "Out Of The Darkness".
The following pair of songs were first heard on Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes tremendous second album This Time It's For Real (1977).
Both "Some Things Just Don't Change" and "Love On The Wrong Side Of Town" are arranged as originally heard but its a treat for long time Little Steven fans to finally hear him sink his teeth into these familiar tunes himself. One noted improvement is that the 2017 drums are booming and full sounding unlike the oddly thin sound that neutered them on the This Time It's For Real album (that record's only flaw, it must be said!). Although Steven's original 1982-83 Disciples of Soul backing band regularly tackled songs that Van Zandt had written for the first three Southside Johnny albums in their live set ("Take It Inside", "I Played The Fool", "This Time It's For Real"), "Some Things Just Don't Change" was never aired and "Love On the Wrong Side of Town" was dusted off only once in Dec 19 1982 in Washington, DC
The album downshifts with "The City Sleeps Tonight" a lovely 50's style slow-dance ballad with appropriate vocal support from legendary New York a cappella group The Persuasions. Van Zandt even occasionally breaks into falsetto, something he had only previously been known to do during live performances of "Until The Good Is Gone" back in 1983. "The City Sleeps Tonight" reportedly dates back to the early 80's although remained unfinished before this project.
An unexpected surprise on the album is Van Zandt's faithful reading of "Down And Out In New York City" from the 1973 Black Caesar soundtrack by James Brown. if anything, this version actually amps up the blaxploitation vibe of the track thanks to nimble flute playing from Stan Harrision and a sexy wah-wah guitar part played by the album's co-produced and musical director Marc Ribler.
A cinematic spaghetti-western intro suddenly shifts into "Standing In The Line Of Fire", rescued from the 1984 Gary U.S. Bonds album of the same name. Van Zandt's stinging guitar solo is doubled with a mariachi styled trumpet adding a new flavour to the track.
On "Saint Valentine's Day" he presents a more restrained lead vocal almost to the point of speaking it. Bright flourishes from the horn section give an added level of warmth. "Saint Valentine's Day" was originally on the Van Zandt-produced album Saint Valentine's Day Massacre by Norweigian girl-group Cocktail Slippers who presented a more hard edged version of the tune.
The title track from Southside Johnny's 1976 debut I Don't Want To Go Home album is probably Van Zandt's most famous composition. In addition to being a staple of Southside Johnny's live shows since it was released, Little Steven himself performed it nightly on his original 1982-1983 solo tours with his Disciples of Soul band. The song was also performed as a duet between Van Zandt (then known as Miami Steve) and Bruce Springsteen during the July 2 1981 E Street Band show at Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey. Steven's own studio recording of the tune begins with the familiar swelling Miami Horns intro and benefits from more backing vocals from The Persuasions.
The album finishes triumphantly with "Ride The Night Away" which was originally recorded by Jimmy Barnes for his 1985 album For The Working Class Man (it also appeared on Southside's Better Days release). As with the other tracks he is self-covering, this driving rocker isn't changed from the earlier arrangement but that's ok. Besides, they're his songs so if anything, he's just sticking with his original vision.
One clearly noticeable difference with this record in comparison to his past work is in the lead vocal department. Where Steven's voice was once a Keith Richards style tenor that fans loved, over time it has developed a distinctive added element of grit that brings new layer of character to the performances. This sometimes weary sounding voice brings additional heft to the emotional turmoil his protagonists are often suffering (Van Zandt mentions tears or crying in five of the album's twelve songs). This brings new depths of authority and relatability to his storytelling that assists the material in hitting home harder than ever before.
So, when can we expect volume 2?
Robert Lawson 2017.