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Little Steven on Disciples of Soul, Liverpool, Springsteen and more: Q&A

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, February 4, 2021

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"It's amazing how busy you can be without leaving home," Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven, says from the Greenwich Village home he shares with wife Maureen.

He should know. While the COVID-19 pandemic has revoked his ability to tour -- with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or his own Disciples of Soul -- the Little Steven empire is still gunning at full cylinders. That includes his Wicked Cool record label, his syndicated "Underground Garage" radio show, a pair of SiriusXM channels and his Teach Rock initiative, now 250 online lessons strong. The Disciples of Soul, meanwhile, has just dropped "Macca to Mecca," a document of the group's 2017 lunchtime show at the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles did the same more than five decades before.

It comes as part of an expanded edition of the group's "Soulfire Live!" album, and another live set, from its 2019 "Summer of Sorcery" tour, is due out in early summer. Van Zandt -- whose acting resume includes "The Sopranos," "Lilyhammer" and "The Irishman" -- was also part of Springsteen's "Letter to You" album last fall, of course, and he plans to keep the homefront rocking until the day he can step out and back onto a stage again...

So was the biggest achievement in playing the tiny Cavern with a band this big that nobody got hurt?

Van Zandt: (laughs) I wish I could draw you a picture. The stage could really only hold four or five people, but right next to the stage...there's a hallway with a separation. So we put all the girls and the horns in this holiday. There's holes in it but you couldn't really make eye contact, so we had Eddie Manion, the leader of the horns, he could look through and see the drummer so that maybe we could get the endings to be close. Other than that we couldn't really see them all, so it was quite a challenge, but a lot of fun.

And, of course, very special, right?

Van Zandt: Y'know, any time we go to Liverpool it feels really special, anyway, just the town itself. This (Cavern show) was just a crazy idea that came to me a couple days before we played there. I thought it would be fun, 'cause I read about the Beatles doing lunchtime sets back in the day...When they rebuilt (The Cavern) they built it with two rooms -- one room that looked like the old one, with those famous arches we've seen in all the pictures and films, and another, bigger room. They assumed that's where I wanted to play, but I said, 'No, no, no -- I've got to see those arches. I want to play that place I've seen in all the films. So we played the smaller room.

It's an interesting mix of material, too -- some of the songs the Beatles played at the Cavern but also some of the later things, like "Magical Mystery Tour," "Good Morning, Good Morning," "Got to Get You Into My Life," that came after they stopped playing live.

Van Zandt: I figured, 'Let's split it in half.' Obviously we should do some Beatles songs that had horns, but I wanted the other half of the set to be literally songs they played at the Cavern. They were equally fun. I've never played any of those songs, so they were all new to me. I've played a few Beatles songs in early bands, but not these. We rehearsed them on the bus, going around England. We had just two or three days to really figure them out and learn them, and that was fun.

The album stars with "I Saw Her Standing There" with Paul McCartney at the Roundhouse in London. Not too shabby, eh?

Van Zandt: (laughs) Oh, man...Paul played with us, the E Street Band, at Hyde Park, and then he came to our show. And when I was told he was coming, at the very last minute we threw together a version of "I Saw Her Standing There" in came he wanted to come up onstage. But I said to him, "Listen, I really appreciate you coming. I don't want you to feel any pressure to come up. Just relax and have good time," so I assumed he wasn't coming up. We're taking the encore bow and my roadie says, "Paul's coming up," so he did and we had barely rehearsed the song...but it turned out great. Him coming on my stage, endorsing my music, that was just the ultimate sort of validation of my life. I just felt like, "Wow, maybe I have been doing the right thing all these years..."

"Macca to Mecca" is the latest step in what's been a rededication to the Disciples during the past five years or so. Are you happy with how it's gone?

Van Zandt: Y'know, it feels like it was inevitable, to connect with my life's work, to come back and reintroduce that work to the world as much as I could. Doing "Soulfire" (2017) and that tour and then ending up with an album of brand new music ("Summer of Sorcery") that was really a gift from the gods. It looks planned out, and it really wasn't. It was extremely difficult to pull off; It's a big band, the best players in New York, and very expensive, but I ended up getting it paid for, and it's bene more than I even hoped for.

What's next for the group?

Van Zandt: We have this (live) album coming out in June. I'd love to do another album, I really would. I'm definitely hearing things in that bigger way. I'm hearing things the way I left off with my first album ("Men Without Women," 1982) and the Asbury Jukes. I'm hearing things with horns...and the girls. But we'll see. We're talking about Bruce going back out (on tour) -- we may do that in 2022, and that's gonna be two years, probably. I also really want to get back on TV, which would have to come probably after that. So I'm not sure where the Disciples of Soul fit in. I'd like to keep it going, but I have to find somebody, some philanthropist, willing to pay for it. Before I even wrote a new album I'd have to know we were able to tour, and that means the time has to be right as well as the money -- 'cause I'm still trying to achieve my lifelong dream of breaking even. So I can't be sure if it will ever happen again. But I'd like it to.

It was nice to hear a new E Street Band album last year. How was the experience for you?

Van Zandt: It was completely enjoyable. We did it right after the last tour...We figured it would take a month or two and we did the record in four days, which was a new record for us. We went back to doing things the old way, which I'd been encouraging the last few years -- (Springsteen) just walks in with an acoustic guitar and he plays the song for us and we jump in and do it. It was very, very easy, very effortless. We just fell right into it. We had everybody booked for five days, which I thought would be the beginning of the process, really, and by the fifth day we had nothing to do so we just sat around and listened to it and drank tequila. It was a lot of fun.

You co-produced some of those albums that took months and even years to make. In hindsight do you wonder what that was all about?

Van Zandt: (laughs) It's the first album I think he's ever done where he was just focused and had it completely conceived ahead of time. I always work that way; I don't even sit down to write a record until I know what I'm writing about, so everything's very thematic and specific. Bruce was more finding his way in the old days -- that's why he was writing so many songs, just deciding which way to go. But this time he really wanted (the album) to be about what we do. It's about being in a band and it was a connection between his first band, the Castiles, and the E Street Band. It's, emotionally, about your life's work and the relationships that come with it. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and that made it easier.

The Teach Rock program seems like it was tailor-made for at-home learning, no?

Van Zandt: That really has been a good thing, just coincidentally. The curriculum was already online, so we're kind of ahead of the game with that stuff. The teachers have been using it at home, and I think it's great for the kids. We've got 250 lessons online now. It's all free, and the parents enjoy the lessons as much as they kids. They love the music history.

So could that kid that started out rocking in New Jersey back in the 60s imagine he'd still be here, doing it and talking about it, at 70?

Van Zandt: I don't think I thought that far ahead to be honest -- but I don't think I would've found it too hard to believe 'cause I couldn't do anything else. It's not like I had a whole list of careers to choose from. (laughs) I was just the local misfit, freak, outcast, renegade and so on. Thank God the British Invasion came along, which gave us a new options. The Beatles revealed a new world, and four months later the Rolling Stones invited us in. If that hadn't happened, I honestly can't imagine what I would have done. There was not a Plan B, no other option for me. So if by some chance you could make a living doing it, and do it the rest of your life, yeah. Why not?

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