ALBANY — Steven Van Zandt is more modern than he likes to admit. His show Friday night at the Palace was all rock ‘n’ roll, or, as he calls it, soul music. Old tunes and old genres. But his treatment with his band the Disciples of Soul is fresh, his arrangements and sounds are current, and he presents with a great confidence that feels modern.
The show was filled with his own songs, covers of soul icons like Etta James and, of course, tunes with his Jersey brethren Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and others.
The stage was packed with 15 players – five horns, three female singers, keyboards, percussion and guitars. Despite the layers and size of the sound, the songs were simple and straight ahead. There were a few one-round solos through the night, but it was less about individuals and largely about the songs.
From the time he played “Soulfire” for the second song, the show roared from start to finish – volume and tempo stayed high.
Van Zandt had a guitar strapped on him for a good part of the night and played several short solos, but he spent most of the time singing and running the show.
He told us he was dedicating the tour to teachers. “It’s time for us to give respect to our teachers. This is for them and all the teachers I gave a hard time to in high school.” He followed this with “Blues Is My Business.”
He spent a few times talking – preaching – to us through a soft groove, the way Springsteen tells stories in the middle of his tunes. Van Zandt takes his soul seriously. He wasn’t out to blow our minds with new music, but he was out to save us from the outside world, if only for a few hours. “Leave your business outside, dig deep down inside, get to that place we call soul. And we’re gonna groove together.”
He talked about Detroit music — Motown — and named his heroes, like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, and stopped to dwell on The Temptations.
Oddly, he was kept out of the spotlight, literally: whether he sang, soloed on guitar, or talked to us, he was hardly visible without a light. Perhaps this was how he saw his role.
He talked about working with Gary U.S. Bonds before playing “Standing in the Line of Fire,” which he called Italian funk. He covered James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City.” The horns were featured individually during this tune, and he let them have their say for a while. It was a good move.
The seats seemed a little more than half-filled. Most members of the audience stayed on their feet the entire time, but ironically moved very little to the incessant dance music.
He performed some doo-wop, after he gave us a small, enjoyable history lesson of its origin, emphasizing the race issues, and the importance of harmonic interaction. He called out the bravery of a few disc jockeys in the 1950s who brought black music to a white audience. He credits that magic to the music he plays now.
He followed the talk with “The City Weeps Tonight.”
Not much happened in most of the tunes, like “I Saw the Light.” Instead, the band drove hard and tried to get the place rocking, like any good bar band hopes to do. His songs didn’t need all the layers he had on stage — stripped down they work just as well. But a show that big and well-orchestrated reflects a generosity, a respect, for the ticket buyer.
The best fun of the night was in the way back, “Bitter Fruit,” which, ironically, was the only song that fell outside the straight soul category.
The final run featured his larger tunes: “Ride the Night Away,” and “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” a hit for Southside Johnny.
Somewhere in the middle of the show, Van Zandt talked about his times with Springsteen and Southside Johnny living together after high school in Asbury Park, trying to figure out where they’d go with their lives. That’s what the audience wanted: a hard-working band, solid rock music, and a story or two about the old Jersey days. And that’s what they got.