Review by Simon. Photos by Chris Zwaagdyk
The size of an audience shouldn’t really have a bearing on a review, but in this case, it surely does. For on the very last night of their two year tour, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul played their hearts out in a joyful two and half hour set, all in front of a sadly meagre crowd at the Auckland Town Hall. The auditorium was barely a quarter full, if that.
The band would surely be forgiven for being disappointed at the turn out, in what they would have wanted to be a triumphant and rousing finale to their tour. But it took only a matter of seconds to realise that what mattered to this group of musicians was indeed the music, and whether you play it in front of ten or ten thousand doesn’t diminish the love for soul and rock music or the pleasure derived from performing it.
So, those of us there were treated to a fantastic show. This is a big band led by a charismatic front man who we’ve come to know over the years as a musician, activist, and actor. Steve Van Zandt took the stage in his trademark bandanna, leather jacket, scarf, with rings on his fingers and a twinkle in his eye. Behind him, a big band, with a five piece horn section, three back up singers (who never stopped dancing over two and a half hours) plus two keyboard players, bass and guitar players, and a percussionist, all dedicated to that special mix of rock and soul that derives from somewhere near Detroit but which in Van Zandt’s case found a new voice in New Jersey.
Much of the setlist is written or co-written by Van Zandt, but perhaps the covers give you a true sense of the flavour of the night: Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music, Etta James’ The Blues is My Business, and James Brown’s Down and Out in New York City. The songs are played with plenty of power when they need to be, and with all the finesse and light touch that a soul song requires. Van Zandt can certainly belt out a song, as we’ve seen him do for years standing alongside Bruce Springsteen at a microphone, but he also reveals a sweet side to his vocals.
The band is given plenty of space to show its wares, with percussionist Anthony Almonte giving us a dazzling solo near show’s end, and the five horn players regularly come forward for solos. Two of them had familiar faces, as Eddie Manion on baritone sax and Clark Gayton both accompanied Van Zandt on the E Street Band’s visit to New Zealand in the 2014 Wrecking Ball tour.
But the show is truly about Stevie Van Zandt and his desire to celebrate this music and keep it alive. And given his long association with Springsteen, his visibility as an actor, and his history as a political activist, he’s in a good position to take on this role. Van Zandt told us he’d left overt politicising behind, but then went on to extol the virtues of the world’s overworked and underpaid teachers. And in the encore The Disciples of Soul treated us to a sparkling version of Van Zandt’s great anti-apartheid song of the early 80’s, Sun City.
As a Springsteen fan of long standing (as I suspect every member of the audience was), I found it fascinating to ponder how much influence he had on Van Zandt, and vice versa. In Van Zandt’s rapport with the audience, his fondness for sharing a wee chat, his orchestration of the band, his generosity in giving them the spotlight, his determination to put out a meaningful show, and also in the feel of the songs themselves, you could see much of The E Street Band culture. I strongly suspect it would be a mistake to believe it’s all a case of Springsteen rubbing off on Van Zandt, and that the reverse may be closer to the truth. Check out some of the documentary footage contained in the anniversary releases of Darkness on The Edge of Town and The River, and you’ll see how much Van Zandt was working with Springsteen on many songs.
So this was night of music to treasure, all the more so given it was the last night of a big tour. If The Disciples of Soul return – and Van Zandt said they would – don’t miss out. Those few of us there last night left with smiles on our faces, and our souls well satisfied.
Many thanks to Chris Zwaagdyk for his excellent photo gallery