By David Karp
I was glowing with excitement all day, working as fast as I could to close the café on Saturday so I would not miss a single riff about to play just a few doors down the street at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Rhythm and blues and rock-and-roll already were flowing in my body; my Jersey pride was building in my heart and in my hands, which were bound to go up in the air to the music; and man…I’m sure my soul wasn’t the only one on fire in that building.
The click of the lock was as loud as a starting pistol as I rushed from work. Off I was! Two minutes later I was (miraculously) in my seat right as the lights dimmed to the dark red and purple of the band’s curtain.
In trickled a 15-piece band that included an incredible five-piece horn section, two drummers/percussionists who kept the rock loud, three background singers/dancers who kept the groove going, a bassist and a guitarist equipped to echo through the night, and a pianist and keyboardist to keep things Jersey.
Then, emerging from the shadows like a god in some trippy rock and roll epic, ready to guide everyone through the good times of the good old days…dressed in his uniform of baggy black overcoat with just enough buttons opened at the top of his shirt and, naturally, that signature long dark bandana…the man, the legend, the Jersey hero, the consigliere himself…Little Steven Van Zandt.
Suddenly, we were deep into a cover of Arthur Conley and Otis Redding’s Sweet Soul Music, Van Zandt singing the opening lines: Do you like good music? A fitting way to open what Van Zandt himself called a “history of American rock and roll.”
I strapped myself into his musical time machine, and off we went.
We found ourselves into a cover of Soulfire by The Breakers, who recorded on Little Steven’s label, Wicked Cool Records, before breaking up in 2012. The title track of Van Zandt’s most recent solo effort, it’s a very-present throwback to ’60s and ’70s goodness, and Stevie and the band did it justice.
The night continued with a mixture of soul, blues, and rock and roll: All near and dear to Van Zandt’s heart. For many in the big crowd, this wasn’t their first encounter with Little Steven — either armed with a guitar next to the Jersey Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, or actually armed next to Jersey’s mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos, as right-hand man Silvio Dante.
Or maybe they heard him while driving past the Turnpike’s concrete garden of exit signs and radio towers, on Little Steven’s Underground Garage, his Sunday night rock and roll radio show on Q104.3-FM.
This business of rock and roll, soul, blues, and New Jersey is what he lives for, and if you were at the same concert I was at, you won’t have any doubt about that. The loud, soul-soothing evidence piled up as the setlist unfolded.
One favorite of mine, early in the two-hour show, was a cover of Blues is My Business, written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and sung by Etta James on her 2003 record Let’s Roll.
I swear, five seconds into that song and I was cruisin’ back home down Lakeshore Drive. The band was going for that Southside Chicago blues sound, and boy was it a trip to sweet, sweet homesickness. (Chicago was my home for eight years, though my roots are still Jersey!)
Another favorite was a reworked song Van Zandt wrote with Gary U.S. Bonds, Standing In The Line of Fire, which screamed to be in a Quentin Tarantino spaghetti western.
At the time I had no idea but, ironically enough, I found out later that the new music Van Zandt mixed into the song was a tribute to the Italian stallion of composing, Emilio Morricone, who did compose the score for the latest Tarantino flick The Hateful 8. A western, of course.
Songs from Inglourious Basterds clicked in my head, the “aha” moment coming amidst wailing guitars and Little Steven singing in the background. Who knew?
So yes, we got doo-wop, we got R+B, we got Motown, we got Chicago sounds, we got Spaghetti Western and, as the evening drew to a close, we got one of Van Zandt’s best compositions.
Written for another Jersey favorite, Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes, for their very first album (in fact, the title song/opening track), I Don’t Want To Go Home blasted off with Little Steven firmly asking the question we all knew the answer to: “Anybody want to go home?”
NOOO shot back almost as loudly as BRUUUCE at an E Street Band concert. The aisles were filled with people dancing to the music and the moment, which both felt timeless, as all the rhythms that make up the good in the world surrounded them.
And just like that, Little Steven and the band accomplished what they set out to do: Bring everyone together with music that truly can do something incredible to the soul in a “crazy, crazy world,” as Steven put it.
When the house lights came on and it finally was time to drive myself home, I couldn’t help myself: Whatever was burning in my soul felt good, felt right.
I hope it never stops burning.