By Karsten Stanley Andersen

The big heart of Little Steven on full display

Published 2017-07-02
Little Steven may be a fine actor and a great radio host, but judging from his Disciples of Soul comeback tour in Europe, the rock stage is where he truly belongs.

Everything that dies someday comes back. The words certainly ring true for the recent resurrection of Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, a band that until recently seemed long lost to history. Little Steven himself had long ago moved on to other activities that should be well known to all readers of this page. Nothing indicated a return to the role of pirate-dressed band-leader. And yet, there he is on stage in Amager Bio, Copenhagen, a former movie theater turned into rock venue specializing in names that have probably seen better days, but who can still excite audiences of middle-aged men and women, just like the crowd that has turned up today.

For me, Little Steven as a solo artist was someone I never got seriously into. If it hadn't been for my Bruce obsession, I doubt he would have registered on my radar at all back in my Eighties teenage years. As a Springsteen fan since 1986, I was aware of him, but by the late Eighties his biggest prominence as a solo artist was already behind him. In other words, I didn't have a chance to see him live, and the only album he released around that time was 1989's Revolution, which I never bought, preferring instead to spend all my money on my new-found passion for Springsteen bootlegs.

But over the years my admiration and respect for him had only grown, especially in his role in keeping Bruce true to the rock 'n' roll spirit. I loved his backup vocals in the E Street Band, the edgier and more off-key (in a good way) the better. I loved his coolness and his ugly, scowling mobster mug. And how that didn't correspond at all with how genuinely nice and funny he sounded in interviews, as well as in stories by other fans about meeting him in person. Of course, I was also well aware of his songwriting skills and what he did for Southside Johnny's career in that department, and I had briefly listened to his new album Soulfire and enjoyed it quite a lot. So, my expectations for the Copenhagen show were high. At the same time, I couldn't help having a small, nagging fear that maybe he'd be showing his age a little too much and be unable to exert the energy required to live up to those expectations.

Well, Little Steven may be in his late sixties now, but as with his E Street boss you simply don't give it a second thought once he enters the stage. He may not be as physically fit as Bruce, but his voice is in fine shape. And with a 15-piece band on a small stage like Amager Bio's there's no room to bounce around like a young man, anyway. So, there he is, wearing his mandatory pirate's head scarf, black velvet jacket, and a colorful scarf around his neck that almost touches the ground. He is playing his guitar like the champ we always suspected he is, but which he rarely has the opportunity to demonstrate when standing next to Bruce and Nils.

"Soulfire" opens the show. The horns and singers are in focus from the start. The scantily clad singers live up to the best traditions with their inciting moves and unbound energy. They are a truly exciting acquaintance, and more than a few male members of the audience spend a good percentage of the show looking at them rather than at Steve. And yes, their singing is top-notch too.

The horn section has two faces that should be familiar to Bruce fans. There's Ed Manion on the saxophone, part of Bruce's horn sections since Tunnel of Love and, by some, considered a possible replacement for Clarence in the E Street Band until Jake entered the picture. And then there is Clark Gayton on trumpet, who was a member the Seeger Sessions band and the Wrecking Ball horn section. Last but not least, Everett Bradley on percussions, who was also part of the E Street Band during the Wrecking Ball Tour.

The rest of the band is unfamiliar to me - until after the show when I look them up - but no less skilled at their instruments. Although none of them (except for Rusty Cloud, who is only in the band for part of the tour) was part of the band that recorded the Men Without Women album back in the days, they are more than just a bunch of hired hands. They are also not just someone Steve found at local bars on the Jersey Shore. The drummer Charles Drayton has played with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Neil Young and Herbie Hancock, and grandpa-bearded keyboardist Lowell "Banana" Levinger was a founding member of the Youngbloods way back in the early Seventies.

And great, diverse musicians are indeed needed. Far more than just a soul band, the Disciples of Soul also has to excel at everything from rock to jazz to reggae. Little Steven's solo output, we are reminded, spans all these genres as well as pop and blues... and a fabulous version of "Down and Out in NYC" with its feel and sound harkening back to the theme from the Seventies movie "Shaft". Altogether, just as stunning as the diversity is the fact that Little Steven is able to play for 2.5 hours without including a single song that seems like filler or sub-par. And that's not just some fanboy bullshit. The guy wrote dozens of songs that should be - and in a few cases, are - pop music classics. Even the songs that I don't know - and there are maybe 5-6 of those - sound damn good even at first listen. And a song like "Forever" that closes the main set... Someone tell me why that song was not a #1 hit single for Steven when it was released in 1982 (in fact, it only reached #63 on Billboard's single chart), because I sure can't answer that question.

Between songs Little Steven talks to the crowd in his characteristic modest way and with that humorous sparkle in his eyes. Although these middle-aged, too-many-rock-concerts ears don't catch all of it, you can't help feeling in good company as he talks about his songs, the old days, and the people he encountered. Despite his cool exterior, Steve just radiates genuine niceness. Arrogance, spoiled celebrity attitude, and indifference are not even part of his vocabulary, much less his style.

As the set reaches its finale with a slowed-down "I Don't Wanna Go Home", "Ride the Night Away" of Southside Johnny fame, a fabulous, hard-rocking "Bitter Fruit", and the aforementioned shoulda-been-a-monster-hit, "Forever", it's hard not to feel that you are witnessing something much more than just another show you went to because the artist had ties to Bruce Springsteen. Just like his boss, Little Steven has something more to offer than just a few good songs. In his own modest way, without the need for fire-and-brimstone preaching, he fills the room with excitement and emotion and heals you with the music.

With the encore of Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" still ringing in my ears as I leave the small venue, I know that this night will stay with me for a good long time. Somehow this night has made the prospect of a Bruce-free summer a bit more bearable. As the perfect accomplice that he is, Little Steven carries on the sword while the leader restitutes in the equestrian venues of Europe, and he does it with all the conviction his big heart can muster and way beyond the call of duty.

As of now, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul only have four more shows scheduled, but more are in the works, including in the US.

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