Arts

Little Steven, The Soul Disciples headline 27th NYS Blues Festival

Jo Lopez photo

A half-century ago, at a time when rock’n’roll was treated like a redheaded stepchild by Syracuse’s mainstream media, the Syracuse New Times burst upon the scene and gleefully embraced the music of the Woodstock Nation. It’s more than appropriate that this final print edition ever pays homage to the blues: the three-chord, hyper-rhythmic genre that birthed rock’n’roll.

After a band called Triple Shot got the ball rolling and passed it to The Kingsnakes, when Big Tom Townsley started blowing his harp and hosted the Sunday Night Blues radio show on WAER-FM, as Kelly James and Roosevelt Dean reminded us of the ebony origins of the blues, the Syracuse New Times nurtured the booming scene. Over the years, the music man with the most appearances on a New Times cover just might be Blue Wave Records founder Greg Spencer.

The city’s “alternative paper” sent audiences to Copperfield’s to the south and Nappi’s to the north and hyped the opening of the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where in 1996 photographer Mike Davis staged a remarkable photo of the entire blues community called Blue Day in Syracuse, depicting scores of musicians from the world-famous Kim Simmonds to local heroes like Colin Aberdeen, Pete McMahon, Phil Petroff and Terry Mulhauser.

Along the way, the Syracuse New Times cultivated the blossoming scene by sinking significant ink into the New York State Blues Festival, which has grown into one of the largest free blues events in the Northeast. The 27th annual festival will be staged at Clinton Square from Thursday, June 27, through Saturday, June 29.

Headlining the weekend is a favorite son of the Jersey Shore: Guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt and his band, The Soul Disciples, will play tunes from their new disc, Summer of Sorcery, on Saturday at 9 p.m. Van Zandt’s two-hour set follows Lurrie Bell, the guitar-playing son of harmonica legend Carey Bell. Lurrie takes the main stage at 7:15 p.m.

Van Zandt’s no bluesman, per se, but he gladly celebrates its place in the pop music pantheon. He describes his music as an amalgam of rock and soul. Summer of Sorcery features a tune titled “I Visit the Blues,” a basic progression played over a chugalug rhythm as Little Steven testifies, “I visit the blues, but I don’t hang around too long.”

The guitarist-singer, who made his bones with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes before hitting it big with Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, will dive more deeply into the blues in the near future. He’s mulling over a new recording project that he describes as “me covering me,” one in which he and the Soul Disciples perform classics as well as new recordings of songs Van Zandt wrote for others, including Southside Johnny.

One cover he’s already zeroed in on is “The Blues is My Business,” from Etta James’ 2005 CD, Let’s Roll, her final recording. Little Steven’s version — which he and the Disciples waxed two years ago for their Soulfire Live disc — includes a blistering trombone solo by Clark Gayton, some boogie-fried piano by Clifford Carter and a rockin’ tenor sax part by Stan Harrison.

But for now, Little Steven & The Soul Disciples are basking in the light of Summer of Sorcery, his first new album of solo material in more than 20 years.

“This was really a major breakthrough for me artistically, which is a wonderful thing to happen at this stage of the game,” Van Zandt told a reporter last month. “All my previous solo albums of the 1980s were very autobiographical and political. Then through a rather bizarre circumstance, by a guy asking me to throw a band together and play his blues festival three years ago, I sort of became reacquainted with my own work after 20 years. I threw a list together of some of my old songs, along with some blues songs, and it was quite a revelation to hear my old work and to realize it really had an interesting value; through the years I think it had become its own genre, this rock-meets-soul thing.”

Little Steven is thinking big. “I think this is the best band I’ve ever had,” Van Zandt says of the Disciples. The ensemble includes musical director and guitarist Marc Ribler, Lowell “Banana” Levinger of The Youngbloods on piano and Wurlitzer, bassist Jack Daley, drummer Rich Mercurio, percussionist Anthony Almonte from King Creole and The Coconuts, Andy Burton on B3 organ and piano, horn director Eddie Manion on baritone saxophone, Stan Harrison on tenor sax and flute, Ron Tooley and Ravi Best on trumpet and Clark Gayton on trombone. The band is complemented by the synchronized-dancing backup singers known as the Divas of Soul: Jessie Wagner, Sara Devine and Tania Jones.

Although he’ll always be known as Springsteen’s sidekick, Little Steven is far more than a talented accompanist. With the Soul Disciples, he proved himself a daring and effective bandleader, herding 14 cats across continents and across a wide spectrum of rock’n’roll. On stage, Little Steven holds his own as an electric axeman (check out the scorching guitar work on “Superfly Terraplane”) and as a passionate singer (“Blues is My Business”).

The self-described bar band refugee has been branching out over the past 22 years or so, becoming an actor on The Sopranos, pioneering a U.S-Norway television production and hosting his own two-hour syndicated radio program, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. “The Underground Garage is 17 years and counting,” he proudly proclaims. It’s broadcast over 100 affiliates in more than 100 countries.

While the radio work is a natural outgrowth of Little Steven’s lifelong love affair with rock’n’roll, his turn as an actor is more of a surprise.

After Sopranos creator David Chase saw Van Zandt induct The Rascals into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, Chase called the bandanna-ed bandleader out of the blue to offer him a role as Jersey mafioso Sylvio Dante. After The Sopranos wrapped in 2007, Van Zandt played “Glory Days” at the Super Bowl half-time show with Springsteen in 2009, then appeared as himself on the Norwegian soap opera, Hotel Caesar, the following year.

Talk about surprises, Van Zandt found serendipity in Scandinavia when a couple of screenwriters tracked him down at a Norwegian recording studio and offered him a chance to star in Lilyhammer, an offbeat dark comedy in which he played a Manhattan mob underboss relocated to frigid Norway by the FBI’s witness protection program. Pretty much reprising his Sylvio character, Van Zandt starred in, co-wrote, created a music score and became executive producer of the groundbreaking English- and Norwegian-language TV series which ran on Netflix for three seasons, 2012 to 2014.

Perhaps even more impressive than his flair for acting, Van Zandt has reinvented himself as an educator as well as an entertainer. He has created a rock’n’roll curriculum at TeachRock.org which is available to teachers worldwide.

Van Zandt launched the educational effort in 2007 after he learned that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 had an unintended consequence, cancelling arts classes in favor of science and math. “So I said to the teachers, ‘Let’s do the history of music instead.’ I outlined 200 lessons for a K-12 national curriculum, and we have over 100 lessons online at teachrock.org, which teachers can use for free,” he said.

For instance, TeachRock outlines the blues in 11 lessons from Muddy Waters to the Great Migration to the impact of electric guitar. Interested educators can contact Christine at RockandRollForever.org.

“This curriculum is going to be a big part of my legacy if we can get it entrenched,” he observed. “We need to have an arts presence in the DNA of the (educational) system.”

Despite his many and varied accomplishments, everywhere he goes Little Steven is bombarded with questions about Springsteen.

“I booked this Summer of Sorcery tour until Nov. 6, at the Beacon Theater. At that point, I’ll see what Bruce wants to do,” he patiently explained to a recent interviewer. “Bruce will always have priority with me, and if he wants to do an E Street Band record we’ll jump in and do that. And if not, maybe I’ll look for another TV show or continue with the Disciples. But at least until November I’ll be doing this and then we’ll see what he wants to do.”

Until Springsteen beckons, however, Little Steven and his soulful horns and rockin’ guitars will continue to preach the gospel of good vibes.

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