When I met with Steve Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) in 2019, I asked him whether the brand of rock and soul that he’d created with Southside Johnny was the music that was closest to his heart. He said it was, adding, “I returned to that this past two years, and I’m gonna stick with it.” That’s exactly what he does on Soul Fire Live, a frequently powerful four-CD collection that finds him performing with his versatile 14-member Disciples of Soul group, which includes a four-piece horn section (tenor sax, trombone, and two trumpets).
Approximately half the set consists of numbers written (or in a few cases cowritten) by Little Steven, including such standouts as “Checkpoint Charlie,” which first appeared on his Voice of America album in 1984; “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” which he wrote with his longtime E Street bandmate, Bruce Springsteen, and which is most associated with Southside Johnny; and “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” which is also known for its Southside Johnny rendition and appears here in a version that features Springsteen.
The collection makes room for lots of covers as well. Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” is here (Bruce joins in on this one, too), as are Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” and Joey Ramone’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” which Little Steven also performs on Peace, Love & Understanding, an excellent 2003 concert recording with Springsteen. Other high points include a cover of the J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame” with guest Peter Wolf and “Groovin’ Is Easy,” from the Electric Flag, a fine 1960s band featuring the late guitarist Mike Bloomfield that today garners much less attention than it deserves.
The package’s fourth and final disc offers a special treat for Beatles aficionados (i.e., nearly everybody): Little Steven, who is himself no small fan of the Fab Four, performs a set at the Cavern Club (a replica of the original) in Liverpool, England. “Rock and roll is my religion,” he tells the audience, “and this is Mecca, baby, right here.”
The group perform covers that the Beatles played in their early days, including the Shirelles’ “Boys,” Larry Williams’s “Slow Down,” Leiber and Stoller’s “Some Other Guy,” and “Soldier of Love,” a song previously recorded by the late Arthur Alexander, another artist whose work merits considerably more notice than it receives. Also featured are sprightly versions of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Got to Get You into My Life,” and “All You Need Is Love,” all of which were chosen to make good use of Van Zandt’s sizzling horn section. Plus, the Cavern Club set is bookended by performances of the Beatles’ “Birthday” in Leeds, England, and “I Saw Her Standing There” at the Roundhouse in London, the latter with Little Steven sharing vocals with the one and only Sir Paul McCartney.
If you enjoy listening to this fourth disc, you’ll enjoy watching it even more. It’s good news, therefore, that the CD is also offered separately as Macca to Mecca!, where it is packaged with a DVD that features surround sound. The relatively minor bad news is that you can’t get the DVD with the four-disc release; if you want all the music and the video, you have to opt for both packages. The duplicated audio CD notwithstanding, it’s an option worth considering.
Mac Leaphart, Music City Joke. In the title cut of this latest album from the Nashville-based Mac Leaphart, he sings about how tough it is to succeed as a singer/songwriter in his hometown. “I’m out on a limb, trying to get in on this music city joke,” he proclaims at one point. “Feels like the last laugh is on me.”
Perhaps. But this CD, his best to date, could give him a shot at a wider audience, thanks largely to vocals and frequently smile-inducing songs that recall artists such as Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as John Prine and Roger Miller, both of whom he references in “Music City Joke.” Leaphart benefits from a strong supporting crew, including longtime fiddle and pedal steel player Fats Kaplin and multi-instrumentalist Brad Jones, who produced. But the country-leaning folk singer and his consistently imaginative, cliché-free tunes—all self-penned, though two have cowriters—are front and center throughout.
Among the many highlights are the violin-spiced “El Paso Kid,” a song about a boy who got off to a “rough start” that Leaphart first recorded in 2015; and “The Same Thing,” a sweet midtempo number about a lost love in which the singer proclaims, “We all see the clouds above us from a different point of view / And he won’t see the same thing that I saw in you.” Also: “Window from the Sky,” which uses the image of a bird trapped in a house as a jumping-off point to talk about a friend who’s “stuck in a corner he got backed up in”; and “Ballad of Bob Yamaha or a Simple Plea in C Major,” a tribute to songwriter Shel Silverstein that Leaphart performs solo.
Michael Lawson, Side 2. You might expect a musician to be overflowing with material after a decade-and-a-half hiatus from songwriting, but Alabama-based Michael Lawson has returned to his craft with a mere five-song, 20-minute EP. Take what you can get, however, because this self-produced collection is excellent. Lawson and his band deliver hook-laden power pop that recalls Dwight Twilley (a high compliment); you may also hear echoes of Tom Petty in the vocals and George Harrison in some of the guitar work.
Lawson reveals on his website that his 20-year marriage ended not long ago and says, “I turned to music to help me pass the time and to cope with the sense of loss that I was feeling.” A few of the titles here, such as “Life Goes On (Movin’ On),” hint at those circumstances but the music mostly belies them: these are upbeat, anthemic songs, peppered with ringing guitars and “sha la la” choruses that may prompt you to turn up the volume to the point where neighbors complain.