I’m so happy that Little Steven’s first solo album in 16 years is highly anticipated on his own Wicked Cool label, including a nearly sold-out show on May 27 at The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, then a European summer tour. The buzz almost makes up for how foolishly his first two solo albums were overlooked, especially his 1982 debut, Men Without Women, one of the best albums ever made. Just ask Bruce Springsteen, because I think he would agree with me.
Steven and a new version of his Disciples of Souls are back with the smokin’ hot high energy of Soulfire, a 12-song blast of the soul, rhythm and blues, and blues that he orchestrated as the founding guitarist-producer of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. From the opening Jackson 5-like strut of the title track (written with the Denmark-based Wicked Cool act The Breakers) to the closing breezy blues of “Ride the Night Away,” Soulfire will uplift the hearts and blow the minds of Jukes fans. The Jukes juices “I’m Coming Back” and “Ride the Night Away” (from Southside’s 1991 Steven-produced comeback LP Better Days), “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “Some Things Just Don’t Change” (from 1977’s This Time It’s for Real) and his masterpiece, “I Don’t Want to Go Home” (the title track of the Jukes’ 1976 debut LP) are deliciously re-energized and intricately embellished.
Most fun is when Steven scratches his doo-wop itch by remaking “I Don’t Want to Go Home” as a stirring Drifters-like track and throwing a couple shooby doo-wops into “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” which must make original Jukes drummer Kenny “Popeye” Pentifallo happy.
But the tune that really is a treat is the doo-wop ballad “The City Weeps Tonight,” which thankfully resurfaces from the archives of tracks written for Men Without Women. The power in the simplicity of this soulful song lifts the listener up to the point where you feel like you’re dancing on air. And what a sweet nod to the pre-Upstage days when Asbury Park was a nationally recognized spot for great doo-wop.
Other redeemed castaways and overlooked treasures include “I Saw the Light” (half-written for former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora but finished for Soulfire) and the soul-injected Dylanesque “Saint Valentine’s Day,” written for but not recorded by Nancy Sinatra. Then there’s “Standing in the Line of Fire,” which Steven wrote and recorded as the title track for Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ 1984 LP, but has a ball hanging a sharp right with Ennio Morricone-inspired, spaghetti-western gusto.
Steven also covers chunky nuggets by James Brown (“Down and Out in New York City” from the “Black Caesar” soundtrack) and Etta James (the Southside-of-Chicago-styled “The Blues Is My Business”). His enthusiasm for both is a shared delight.
This record makes me very happy, a large part of what music is supposed to do. I hope it’s an absolute smash, not only because Steven totally deserves it for a variety of reasons, but because it’s that good!
Bob Makin is the reporter for mycentraljersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor and now a contributing writer to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com.