Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Bruce Springsteen’s longtime right hand man/shotgun riding guitarist and occasional actor’s first solo stab in nearly two decades plays as a re-recorded version of Little Steven’s greatest hits. If, as Steven Van Zandt says in the press notes accompanying the release “This record is me doing me,” then he seemingly wants to be Southside Johnny, whose first three albums Steven notably produced and helped write songs for.
It’s impossible not to hear the Southside Johnny blueprint of horn-bolstered classic R&B on Soulfire, both in the boisterous, brassy arrangements and Steven’s vocals that are often so similar to Johnny’s as to be almost indistinguishable. Additionally, Steven recreates five songs he wrote for various Southside albums in arrangements that hew closely to the first versions. Other tunes have already appeared on albums from Gary U.S. Bonds and The Cocktail Slippers, a band on Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool record label.
None of this is a deal breaker though. Steven and his Disciple of Souls backing unit attack the material with the fever, fervor and, well, fire of Springsteen at his most soulful. These recordings crackle and explode out of the speakers with a wall of sound approach that brings a widescreen audio ferocity to the hour-long program that never lets up. The cinematic association is particularly relevant on a cover of James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” from Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack where Steven sharply recreates the “blaxploitation” sound — right down to the wah-wah guitar, horns and strings — first popularized with Isaac Hayes’ music for Shaft.
Elsewhere, Steven revisits his doo-wop roots on “The City Weeps Tonight,” a tune he had planned for his 1982 debut but recently finished, and charges head-first into “I Saw the Light” (not the Todd Rundgren hit), that would have fit perfectly on any of the first three Asbury Jukes albums. He takes a rugged Chicago blues rock excursion on “The Blues is My Business,” initially performed by Etta James, and sets the album’s tone on the opening rugged funky/soulful title track with gospel backing female singers. While adding the now classic “I Don’t Want to Go Home” to the track listing brings Steven’s career full circle (it was the first song he wrote), his version isn’t different enough from Southside Johnny’s original to improve on it.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine a more joyous and revelatory contemporary blue-eyed soul recording. The appropriately titled Soulfire is a tough, tight and clearly inspired project as well as a most welcome return from the musical shadows for Steven Van Zandt.