You'd think that a guy who's played stages worldwide for more than 40 years with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, starred in acclaimed television series like "The Sopranos" and "Lilyhammer," and hosted his own "Underground Garage" station on SiriusXM would need no real introduction. But according to Steven "Little Steven" Van Zandt, you'd be wrong.
The last time the famously bandana'd guitarist released a solo record, Clinton was president, the internet was still in an infant stage and smartphones were, well, not a thing. Times have changed and Little Steven knows that audiences can be rather fickle.
"In my case, 75 percent of the audience I'm getting right now is probably just curiosity," Van Zandt tells me during a recent afternoon phone call. "I may have 20-25 percent of the people there that know my songs but most don't! They're coming because they're a 'Sopranos' fan, or a 'Lilyhammer' fan, or an 'Underground Garage' fan, or an E Street Band fan -- but not necessarily knowing my music you know? They're just sort of saying 'What's he do? What is his solo act?' So you have to be realistic about that and realize that I'm winning them over song by song."
For what it's worth, he seems fine with that. In fact, after talking with him, the guy who randomly stumbled into the role of Silvio Dante in 1999 without having any prior acting experience (and who sounds just like you'd expect with that fantastically thick Jersey accent) relishes the challenge.
"I figure, 'OK, I'm starting from scratch here.' I'm looking at this like it's my first tour and my first album. I'm thinking along those lines."
Touted as a "reintroduction" to his music, "Soulfire" is the new studio record from Little Steven and his 15-piece all-star band the Disciples of Soul. For all intents and purposes, it's a covers album -- in the way that they're nearly all songs Van Zandt has written and/or produced for other artists over the past 40 years (picked from a simply massive catalog, by the way). It's also a far cry from his five previous studio albums, nearly all of which had an overwhelming political lean -- a stance that Van Zandt seems happy to put on the backburner nowadays.
"This is the first non-political album I've written in 25 years," he told me. "The concept ended up becoming me as a songwriter, me as a singer, me as a guitar player, me as a producer -- it's on me, not the issues, not the politics for once ... This is the first time in my life where the music comes first."
For a myriad of reasons, it's easy to take Little Steven for granted. He's just always been there, plugging away in a variety of ways -- a notion that isn't lost on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.
"I've never really appreciated the artistic side of my thing," he said. "And you know, people are a bit surprised to learn that there is a Little Steven 'the artist' that was once upon a time considered a very serious artist. It's my own fault for walking away from it, really. I think it's gonna take a couple of tours, a couple of albums, before people really reconnect with that whole thing and realize that this is not some hobby or casual sort of ego trip, but that actually I've always been an artist and I just happen to do a lot of different things. And that's the problem: Most people do just one thing and everyone understands it and it's easily defined, and I'm not so easily defined you know? [laughs] But that's OK."
Guitarist, singer, arranger, producer, writer, director, producer, actor, radio host -- the guy does it all. Van Zandt's referred to it in other interviews as having a "schizophrenic" type of personality, and it seems appropriate ("I've got like 10-12 people living in me. Luckily, they all get along pretty good," he said laughing). When asked if he enjoyed one role more than the others, he explained that he just loves the constant creativity.
"They're all very, very different jobs, different mentalities, different skill sets, different crafts -- I enjoy it all. One gives energy to the next ... When you go from acting to writing to producing to directing, it's different parts of your brain and one gets to rest and the other one then wakes up and takes over. By the time you get back to the original craft, there's a renewal of energy. It works for me," he said.
And now that he's planted his feet firmly on stage as a frontman again, where does he see this journey continuing in the future?
"The audience is welcoming me back with open arms, I'm happy to say," Van Zandt enthused. "You know, it's been a long time. I've lived several lifetimes since the last time I toured [solo], and it's been really rewarding and quite a revelation being reacquainted with my own music, I must say ... It feels like I'm doing the right thing and reconnecting with it. And I'm gonna keep it alive now, and I'm gonna keep touring and keep making records. It's going to be a permanent thing. I'm not gonna leave the E Street Band to do it, but I'll do it every other summer, you know? And if I get a new TV show, I'll do that in the winter and that'll be that."
For the Springsteen faithful or for fans of "The Sopranos" or "Lilyhammer" -- or any of the various endeavors Little Steven's known for, realize that it's OK to be curious. Take a chance and see if he can't win you over at a show.
"We'll transport you to another place and give you sanctuary from all the politics -- exactly the opposite of what I used to do! [laughs] I'm looking forward to it, man."
Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul headline Humphreys Concerts by the Bay on Wednesday, Oct. 18. Tickets are available here.
Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow, records music in his spare time and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.