A Lighter Side of Life – Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – O2 Academy, Glasgow – 20th May, 2019
Stevie Van Zandt, erstwhile stalwart of the Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band during its glory days from 1975 to 1984, and long term actor, mostly notably in The Sopranos, could never be accused of being understated when it comes to his occasional musical project, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Resurrected in 2017, his solo work over the last 35 years was wonderfully showcased by a 14 piece band which included a 5 piece brass section, both a drummer and percussionist with extensive kit, a legendary keyboard player (perhaps more of a footnote in this country) and three backing singers whose wild impromptu gyrations or slinky syncopated moves meant that they were rarely far away from the spotlight.
This is a chilly night in Glasgow but the concert is taking place at the O2 Academy, and even though the upper tier is surprisingly empty, the stalls are packed and the reception is noisy and warm. In that auditorium, arguably the best in Scotland for atmosphere, a party can start at the drop of a hat. But, Little Steven does not leave such matters to chance, for his band are arguably the dream party band.
On he came after his band have started, looking like a pirate with his distinctive bandana, ear rings and an overcoat draped in silk scarves, one of which is revealed later as the Saltire. The male players have pin-striped trousers, blue silk waistcoats and flock shirts. The female backing singers have huge (natural) Afros, bell-bottomed trousers and a lot of tassles and bling. Without resorting to a complicated light show, the stage is awash throughout with colour and glitter. There is an element of the world of Starsky and Hutch here, coolness mixed in with the slightly illicit, and the gold dust of the epic Springsteen sound from the mid-70’s.
Little Steven is an adept showman speaking to the audience on many occasions often about his younger days but occasionally about the current world situation since it is clear that his political activism has not been left behind. He reminds the audience of Glasgow’s inspired move to change the name of one of its streets to Nelson Mandela Place so that the South African Embassy at the time (1986) then had Mandela’s name on their postal address. He says that whilst he is a patriot, he is a global citizen not blind to the injustices of his own country in these troubled times.
The set list centres on his recent album, Summer of Sorcery, a smorgasbord of street styles that he loved as a kid or which he absorbed in NYC. It starts with the song, Communion. Then moves on to everything from blues, soul, rock, mambo, Motown, calypso, reggae, funk, surf rock, mariachi, and probably a whole lot of sub-genres worked in. A loose theme to all of this is narrated early on by the various members of the ensemble as they speak one after the other at the end of the irresistibly danceable song, Party Mamba. The jist of the theme is to forget the troubles of the world and enter their world. It could be a fantasy world or it could be a world that brings back memories. But, it is the world where you are back to the first summer of your life that you recall, a summer where everything is still new and exciting, and all your dreams and possibilities lie ahead untarnished. The songs narrate the stories of various characters who have that moment.
The new album has been positively received but the sheer fullness of the arrangements and the large scale production, can be like a Christmas cake: just a little too rich for one sitting. Translate that, however, to the spectacle of the stage with the movement and energy of the cream of musicians, and the vibrancy and grooves are mesmeric and easily hold the attention for over two hours. That includes a four song encore ending with the foot still flat out on the gas with Out of the Darkness. It is a celebration of great music and the hope and positivity it can provide.
As for the legendary keyboard player mentioned earlier, that is a white haired Lowell “Banana” Levinger, member of the psychadelic folk-rock band, The Young Bloods whose most famous song was “Get Together”, a familiar number even if not an actual hit on this side of the pond.