Cool For School
Little Steven Takes His Rockin' History Lesson on the Road

By Lee Valentine Smith

While Bruce Springsteen continues his successful solo run on Broadway, his E-Street Band-mates have time to pursue their own projects. In the case of Steven Van Zandt, that means a return to his days fronting the Disciples of Soul. Currently he's bringing his most recent album Soulfire to life in venues across the country - with able backing from a big band revue of seasoned players. A look back at his early influences and his own solo catalog, the record is a guitar and horn-driven rock and soul party.

In addition to music, the multitasking Little Steven also has impressive film and television credits (The Sopranos, Lilyhammer), oversees satellite radio channels and a successful record label. For over a decade he has directed the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and the TeachRock project, offering free curriculum to encourage and educate students with arts-centric programs.

INsite caught up with the affable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member as he planned the tour that brings him back to town this month.

Are The Beatles your most enduring influence?

Yeah. They led the way, changed everything and were the definitive pop rock group. They were really the first band. People often don't realize how few real bands there were before them. There were pioneers, but they were individuals. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and then there were vocal groups. But very few groups played and sang and eventually wrote their own songs. Really The Crickets were the only one I can think of and Buddy Holly emerged from them really quickly. The Beatles were the first time we experienced the communication of a real band - four or five guys working together.

That band identity and camaraderie has been a part of your style since the very beginning of your career.

I never would have gotten into the business were it not for the Beatles and the Stones because it's a different kind of communication. An individual, no matter how good they are, it's all about that one person. A band is communicating friendship, brotherhood or sisterhood and it's a community. It's that human interaction, it's what it's all about. It influences people in a positive way to work with other people. It's so easy in this world to become isolated. Which is basically where the world is headed lately. We're becoming more nationalistic and isolated which is a huge step backwards. For the first time really, in my lifetime. But change only comes from a group of people who are working together to accomplish something, whether it's a band or a company or a baseball team.

The political climate can affect the result of that group alliance. A lot of the music we both love is from the tumultuous era of the mid-'60s through the end of height of the Vietnam era.

Yeah, it was an odd combination of tumultuousness and luxury at the same time. We were the richest we'd ever been and had the most free time we'll ever have, with all the drama going on simultaneously with Civil Rights and Women's Rights and Vietnam. It was really the perfect storm for creativity.

You've never shied away from political commentary, especially on your solo records.

It was something I felt I needed to do, especially back in the '80s. There were a lot of things being covered up, a lot of things going on behind the scenes and people just weren't very political at that time. In the '80s, people were happy to just go along with Ronald Regan while a lot of bad things were happening that needed to be talked about. But on this tour, I haven't really been talking about politics at all, because it's everywhere now, 24/7. I thought, 'You know what, the way I can be the most useful at the moment is to give people two, two and a half hours of sanctuary from the bullshit.' Let me just transport the audience to a place where it's a pure musical trip.

The live album [scheduled for digital release this month] is an affirmation of that promise.

It's the best band I've ever had and we're doing about 10 or twelve different subgenres of music in the show so you get the whole history of rock and roll really. That's why we're connecting the shows to my Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. We've been working for the past ten years on a rock and roll history curriculum for schools. On this tour, we're really connecting it all. What I'm doing with this band is pretty much what we're writing for the foundation.

Teachers can get in free to the shows, correct?

We're celebrating teachers and inviting them to every single show. They can sign up with Christine at www.rockandrollforever.org, come to the seminar and workshop and then come on to the show for free. And the lessons they can use from the site are all free. They can just go to www.teachrock.org and there's more than 100 lessons there.

When I was growing up, if a teacher brought out a record or used a musical reference, it was much more memorable than anything from a book.

That's right and those teachers, you remember them forever. Every statistic says that if you like one teacher or one class, you'll go to school and really learn something. We want to be that cool class. That's what we're working on now and the teachers are just lovin' the whole curriculum. We've got very serious educators creating this stuff, it's not just morons like me who barely got out of high school!

You're right about Soulfire being a history lesson.

It is and it's kind of a summary of my life, as much as you can put on one album. I picked the important moments that sum up what I do and where I'm coming from. I've never really had a chance to do that before. You jump into the business and you're already evolved to some point and you're not really dwelling on your roots. This gives me a chance to sort of reintroduce myself and for some people as the writer, singer, guitar-player that some people might know, but some don't. It's really me becoming reacquainted with my own work and being a frontman with this great band.

You've been away from it for a while; the last solo record was '99.

Yeah, I've been ignoring it. You know, I got into acting and the next thing you know, 20 years go by. I don't know how it happens, but it did. So I'm back at it.

You've been pretty busy.

I've done a lot of things. I did Lilyhammer and the score for that and some films and stuff for David Chase but I haven't sat down and wrote a completely original album in a long time. I'm anxious to see what direction it'll go in.

It could go anywhere. Your solo albums are all over the place stylistically.

Yeah, they're all different. I was thinking of the lyrics and the themes and the politics back then. Now I want to see what happens musically with the same band for the next record. I've never done that before.

But your solo shows maintain that big sound from the Springsteen tours.

Yeah, it's an arena show being done in clubs and small theaters. There's fifteen people on stage and we've got 30 people on the road with this. It's a full-blown, killer arena show and it's blowin' people's minds. You're not gonna see a 15-piece rock show too often, you know?

That's like the old Stax-style soul revue shows.

It's exactly that! You know, I think I might be the only person in history who is touring without ever having had a hit. Usually, ya gotta have at least one hit. We've got a bunch of good stuff, but basically we're winning people over song by song. Most of the people in the audience are hearing them for the first time. So it's very rewarding and satisfying to get the reactions we're getting. The crowd goes nuts because it's got a wide range of music in one show. You don't see this too often anymore. People are enjoying the authenticity and expertise of this band. It's so musical - between the five horns and the three girls - so it's entertaining on a purely musical level.

And this group has a pretty good frontman.

(laughs) Yeah, well you know... I'm just doin' the best I can. I'm workin' my way back to it. I got pretty good at it in the '80s. Now I'm just kinda presenting the show. I'm like half frontman and half MC. I'm like, 'Relax and just dig the music,' you know? We'll do the rest.

Little Steven performs Wednesday, May 16 at Center Stage. For more information, please visit
centerstage-atlanta.com.

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