Thursday, May 24, 2018

Following the Soul Fire in Kansas City: Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul at the Uptown Theater

"Rock and roll was white kids trying to make black music and failing, gloriously!" --Steve Van Zandt, interview for Albany Times-Union, 2009           

To say the Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul show at KC’s Uptown Theater was a revelation would be reductionist, one of the great dangers of rock criticism. To say it threw down the gauntlet for me to try to articulate what I’ve been up to for the past thirty-plus years is closer to the mark. I’ve told the story, too many times to count, of the way Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town handed me a sense of my own identity and purpose in my own place and time—a shy, awkward, somewhat self-destructive kid living in Oklahoma. But the lifeline thrown by Steven Van Zandt—Springsteen’s compadre, his very own professor of rock and soul since adolescence—has everything to do with how I found my way to writing about music as a way to answer its call.

           To write about this show has something to do with writing about the context of the seats stage right where I was sitting with my very own band of brothers, disciples of soul ourselves. In 1982, after Springsteen had his first Top Ten hit and returned with a predominantly quiet, depressive, folk record called Nebraska, a significant faction of his fans took solace in two other records helmed by Van Zandt that summer—Gary U.S. Bonds’ On the Line (co-produced by Springsteen) and Steve’s new project, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul with its glorious debut, Men Without Women. Every bit as garage rock as the trashiest sounds of Springsteen’s The River, but like a glorious punk extension of the work Springsteen and Van Zandt had been doing for the better part of a decade with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes as well as Bonds. It was, perhaps, the perfect Disciples of Soul record, but, after Steve left the E Street Band, the two that followed—Voice of America (1984) and Freedom: No Compromise (1987) only deepened and broadened the sense of possibility—embodying a more Prince-like inclusiveness that reached for worldwide musical textures and made political statements about issues in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and South Africa. The Little Steven project, Artists United Against Apartheid, would turn this fan into a published writer and activist.  
           I was sitting with friends I met through that work thirty years ago when the houselights went down May 12th of this year, and this marvelous spectacle appeared on stage. It immediately exploded with the Stax-style horns that herald and punctuate Arthur Conley’s great 1967 ATCO single, “Sweet Soul Music.” How to describe this band, a visual statement in and of itself?!
          Directly in front and above us was Puerto Rican singer and percussionist Anthony Almonte with his beautiful array of timbales, congas, bongos and, alternately, claves and woodblock in hand. Behind him was a four piece horn section, featuring original Disciples Stan Harrison and Ed Manion (also of the Jukes) as well as legendary trumpeter Ron Tooley and trumpeter Ravi Best (who's played with everyone from Kool & the Gang to Ani DiFranco to Lester Bowie) and NOLA trombonist Clark Gayton. Bassist Jack Daley (who’s played with everyone from Iggy Pop to James Brown to Beyonce) prowled the stage and bolstered the rhythm alongside Jersey Shore guitar slinger Marc Ribler (who traded lead duties with Van Zandt, while also holding down the rhythm) in front of drummer Rich Mercurio's propulsion. (Mercurio himself has played with everyone from Idina Minzel to Darlene Love.) His once brown curls now white, with a beard to match, the Youngbloods’ Lowell “Banana” Levinger sat at a piano stage left, smiling like he'd rather be nowhere else in the world. Above and behind him Andy Burton (who's played with everyone from John Mayer to Rufus Wainwright to Ian Hunter) provided the B3 and synth that gave snapping and crackling color to the garage fire throughout.
           And then there were the women—JaQuita May, Sara Devine and Tania Jones, back-up singers delightfully upstaging the rest of the show, dressed in psychedelic skintights both sexy and modest because of a wonderful array of feathers around their necklines and their hips. As if a partial answer to the problem at the heart of Twenty Feet from Stardom, these women were downstage on the right, dancing and singing like the stars of the show that they were.

     In the 36 years since the first Disciples of Soul record came out, I’d never had the chance to see them. Kansas City has never quite gotten the Jersey Shore scene (I once attended a Southside amphitheater show with about 200 people in attendance), and they’ve barely ever attempted to play the lower Midwest. Even on this night—after Steve’s legendary role in the E Street Band, returning in 2000 for more shows than they’d ever done in their first decade, and after over a decade on TV as Silvio in The Sopranos and the star of Lillyhammer, the Uptown was only sold about three quarters of the way back on the first floor. That’s the Midwest and Southwest’s loss, but hard for fans who don’t have the dough to run all over the country to see their favorite artists. All that said, I’m not at all sorry that this was the first time I got to see the band. It’s hard to imagine they ever played better or perhaps even so well, and the array of talent on that stage was something perhaps unimaginable thirty years ago. Beyond that, Steve’s voice has always been a wonderfully idiosyncratic instrument—a soulful blend of Keith Richards and Bob Dylan—but I’m almost certain he’s never sung so well as he does now.
            Case in point—and I hate to mess with the narrative of the show, but a version is available for download now (, so maybe I shouldn’t be spoiling any secrets anyway—during Steven’s “The City Weeps Tonight,” a song he introduced with a brief history of doo wop, my own R&B teacher Billy Chin leaned over to me and said, “He sounds like Little Anthony.” I’m playing “Tears on My Pillow” as I write this and thinking about how good a call that was. Steve sang with a delicate but forceful texture--backed by May, Devine and Jones--that did its history proud.
            The show was promoting Steven’s Teach Rock campaign to aid teachers preserving the heritage of rock and soul in schools ( He made many testimonials to teachers throughout the program, a group he called, “the most underappreciated, overworked and underpaid people in America” at a time when teachers are under attack and can really use the support. As a teacher myself who was once married to an elementary school teacher who had it far worse—more kids than she could reasonably be expected to handle (though handle it she did), not enough bathrooms for the students’ needs and not enough time in her day to take a bathroom break when she might need it—I found such a statement beyond moving. Doubly so because so many of us hated school for good reason, and so many teachers get into teaching thinking they’ll be able to inspire young minds and finding the constraints of our educational bureaucracy make every bit of good they do a heroic act of going above and beyond.
            Anyway, the show was anything but a lecture, but it had all the hallmarks of the most inspiring history lesson imaginable. Steve slowed things down at various points to talk about Chicago blues before introducing Chess Records with Etta James’s, “Blues Is My Business,” a record made late in James’s career but which captures both the Chicago blues sound and makes a brilliant statement about the times we live in today—“The blues is my business, and business is good.” After three strong statements of purpose, this song opened the show up for the first extended jam session, Clark Gayton and Ron Tooley making equally compelling statements for trombone and trumpet as more than a match for any rock guitar solo. (That said, Steve’s rock guitar has been a key benchmark for me for decades, and he proved as electrifying as ever.)
            The history lessons kept coming. Steve pointing out the Detroit groove of his Southside record, “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” while running through a litany of gifts given to us by Motown Records. “And at the top of that list,” he said, “was the Temptations, a band with five lead singers, and no one was greater than David Ruffin. I only met him once, when we were working on the ‘Sun City’ record, but I wrote this song for him.” Illustrating the very DNA of the show, this beautiful testimonial in the face of loss. The guy in that song is never getting his baby back, but that doesn’t have a thing in the world to do with how much he loves her. “The door is always open,” he sings, and it’s a testament of faith in the power of love as profound as they get.
            And this long history of the secular gospel is what keeps us going. Steven stopped again to talk about the importance of Blaxploitation movies and the incredible music made by Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in that era before singing James Brown’s abject despair in “Down and Out in New York City.” Later in the show, the struggle of Latin American migrant farmworkers would explode into fireworks with the drive of Almonte’s percussion on the Freedom: No Compromise cut, “Bitter Fruit.” (I have to add, it was no small pleasure to be standing next to another of my brothers, Ben Bielski, a former drummer for a KC Latin music group, as his hand gestures mimicked the insane timbale fever playing out before us--that is when he wasn't mimicking Mercurio's parts.)  
            Perhaps the most succinct thing I can say about the show is that there’s way too much to talk about here. At one point, the Disciples of Soul turned a song of troubled commitment, “Standing in the Line of Fire,” co-written with Gary U.S. Bonds and his daughter Laurie Anderson, into an Ennio Morricone epic, the struggle of a love on the line as the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. At another point, Steve brought the Youngblood’s Banana upfront for mandolin and Burton up front for accordion, while Tania Jones took over keyboard duties, so that he could tell the story of a grandfather worrying over his granddaughter’s inability to break the family cycle, “Princess of Little Italy.” The Van Zandt penned song for the Norwegian women rockers, the Cocktail Slippers, “St. Valentine’s Day,” hit me as an answer record to Springsteen’s veiled love song to his former bandmate, “Bobby Jean"--which is to say it spoke to all of our most intimate relationships, inside and outside of traditional romance. The AC/DC-ish rocker “Salvation,” from Born Again Savage, a 1999 record most of us missed, emerged as a climactic statement of reality and need.
             In the end, that’s what the show was all about and what this music is all about—our hopes and desires, yes, but our hopes and desires as needs. The show ended with the great 1987 Little Steven hit, “Out of the Darkness,” a gorgeous testament of belief in community that once prompted my first ex to say, somewhat breathlessly, “he’s so good.” Several lines sum up the spirit of the show. When I wrote about this show in a social media post, I quoted the line from Southside’s “I’m Coming Back,” "I’m getting tired of living in a world that’s got no soul,” saying that those words, at once, never rang more true while being dispelled—the whole night a refutation. But I think the real key to the show may lie in the title track to Steven’s new album, the title of the tour, “Soulfire.”

            Steve doesn’t bury the lede, this is generally the opening song of the tour, and the opening original of the show I saw. It begins with this ringing two or three string guitar chord, like morse code, those synths pressing behind, announcing important news to follow. It’s a song about two strangers meeting, one recognizing the grief and terror in the other as mirroring his own. He knows there’s a way out, and he knows it’s together. They take hands and follow the soul fire toward salvation. The best band imaginable playing hard, tight and passionate all night, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul made it easy to see the light.

Thank you to William Heaster for the great tickets. Thank you to Shawn Poole for the quote.