Steve Van Zandt is the embodiment of the blue eyed soul of the 1970s. He is best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, his tenure working with him being longer than any other member of the current E Street Band. But his songwriting doesn’t really follow the Jersey rock sound captured on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While Springsteen’s influences could be distilled down to Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, Van Zandt swings more towards James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Sam Cooke. The Motown/Staxx sound has been more audible on Van Zandt’s records going back to his time writing for and managing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, with songs like “She Got Me Where She Wants Me” and “Next To You” showcasing his songwriting style excellently. His solo career, beginning with 1982’s Men WIthout Women, has very much kept in touch with Van Zandt’s soul roots without shying away from newer styles like synthesizers and distorted guitars.
Last Friday, Van Zandt released Summer of Sorcery, the second release as “Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul,” although the Disciples have been backing Van Zandt on and off since he assembled them working with Gary US Bonds in the early 80s. Summer is a great exploration of how Van Zandt is able to evolve his arrangement, while his essential songwriting style remains unchanged. “A World of Our Own” sounds like it could be a cover of a Southside Johnny track, but the way the horns are arranged and the use of a glockenspiel is something distinctly unlike that earlier era of Van Zandt. He’s also using a backing choir now, which he hadn’t in the 70s and 80s, which really accents lines that need it, and feels like an authentic callback to groups like The Shirelles and The Ronettes that Van Zandt loves.
There is of course a continuum of how retro any given song is. “Gravity” feels very modern with its post-disco bass, its back and forth vocals, and a rhythm that reminds me of “What About Us” off Gary Clark Jr’s last album–while the very next track, “Soul Power Twist,” would fit right in on a 50s soul/rock compilation in between “Quarter to Three” by Gary US Bonds and “Twisting the Night Away” by Sam Cooke. “Superfly Terraplane” recalls Tom Petty with a chorus laden electric 12 string jangling through the intro, then turns into a fast pace Little Richard inspired romp.
Summer of Sorcery is like a crash course in Steve Van Zandt’s solo career. It draws on every period of his career, demonstrating how his discography is simultaneously consistent in songwriting quality and style, and evolving in arrangement and production techniques. If you don’t like Jersey soul, this isn’t going to change your mind, but if I was going to make a flowchart of “How to Get Into Little Steven,” Summer of Sorcery would be the first step.
Summer of Sorcery is now available on CD, MP3, or vinyl through Amazon, or on streaming services.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.