You know Steven Van Zandt, for more than 40 years the bandanna-topped sidekick to Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band, the scene-chewing character actor on HBO’s “The Sopranos” and the similarly mobbed-up Netflix drama “Lilyhammer,” the curator of rock ’n’ roll cool on the syndicated radio program “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.”
But you may not know about Van Zandt the solo performer, the songwriter, the bandleader, the soul singer, the Ennio Morricone devotee. So when Van Zandt spikes his sentences with “you know,” as he does with great frequency, it is both a reassuring declaration and a not-necessarily rhetorical question, you know?
“I think in a lot of cases half the audience is coming out of curiosity, you know?” Van Zandt says from his home in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I never really had any hits, so I don’t have that familiarity with my material. I’m kind of, you know, winning people over song by song.”
Van Zandt will perform at Fort Lauderdale’s Revolution Live on Thursday, Oct. 26, a tour stop with his band, the Disciples of Soul, to support his excellent album “Soulfire.” The record, released in May and the first he has put out on his own since 1999’s “Born Again Savage,” crackles with retro guitar rock and horn-fired soul on tracks he’s written for others over the years or admired from afar.
It is a big sound with cinematic ambitions, from his “blaxploitation” treatment on “Down and Out in New York City” from James Brown’s “Black Caesar” soundtrack to the homage to Morricone’s spaghetti-Western mood music on a song he wrote for Gary U.S. Bonds, “Standing in the Line of Fire.” There is the Chicago sound in Etta James’ “The Blues is My Business,” a visit to his doo-wop years on “The City Weeps Tonight,” the soulful “Saint Valentine's Day,” written for Nancy Sintara, and, of course, several songs he penned for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, including the classic “I Don’t Want to Go Home.”
In a review of “Soulfire,” American Songwriter described the record as “tough, tight and clearly inspired,” saying, “It’s hard to imagine a more joyous and revelatory contemporary blue-eyed soul recording.” In including the album on its June list of Best Albums of 2017 So Far, Rolling Stone called Van Zandt “among the most underrated songwriters of the rock era.”
The concerts on the tour are a throwback to soul revues of the past, with Van Zandt leading a 15-piece band that includes five horn players and a line of three female backup singers.
“I’m just hearing things really big right now, and I think people are getting off on that,” Van Zandt says. “You don’t hear a 15-piece band that often. It’s a big sound, man. Pretty much as big as it gets, but it really has to be, you know?”
Van Zandt foresees regular tours with the Disciples, working dates around his E Street responsibilities. For the record, Springsteen has been on board from the get-go, attending two warm-up shows in Asbury Park and Red Bank, N.J., earlier this year and jumping onstage for a few songs.
“His whole attitude has been very positive,” Van Zandt says. “He wanted it to be clear to everybody that he was supporting what we’re doing here.”
The timing of the project was spontaneous: At the end of Springsteen’s European tour last summer an acquaintance in London asked Van Zandt if he would be interested in bringing a band to a fall blues festival in the city. Van Zandt, who planned to be in London at the same time for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday gala, combed through his old music and was surprised at what he found.
“It was a revelation, becoming reacquainted with these songs again. I was like, ‘Wow, this stuff is really interesting.’ I was surprised how well they held up,” he says. “So I put about 20 songs together for this festival, and it already felt like an album.”
Notable by its absence on the record is any whiff of politics. Van Zandt began his solo career in the early ‘80s wearing his beliefs about race, religion, economics and Ronald Reagan firmly on his sleeve. His second album, “Voice of America,” released in 1984, included a single dedicated to national unity called “Solidarity,” as well as a protest of state-sponsored Latin-American terror titled “Los Desaparecidos” and "I Am a Patriot,” an attempt to remind listeners that dissent is not anti-American.
Van Zandt admits that politics came first in those days, when he believed it was his responsibility to encourage conversations on issues he thought were being ignored. Three decades later, there is no getting away from political debate, which he found oddly liberating.
“I don’t have to explain Donald Trump to anybody. He explains himself every day,” Van Zandt says. “So, you know, for the first time in my life, I said, let me make a record that’s about me as a songwriter and a singer and a guitar player, an arranger and a producer. Let it be just about the music for once. You know, basically the same way everybody else thinks [laughs]. I had never done that before. So it ended up being not only a reintroduction of myself, but actually an introduction of myself.”
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul perform 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $39.50-$45. Call 954-449-1025 or visit JoinTheRevolution.net.