Richard Purden

SO rife were rumours of a 2019 tour by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band that the Boss was forced to release an official statement denying it. At the same time he encouraged fans to support the “mighty E Streeters”.

Springsteen’s long-term bandana-clad sideman Stevie Van Zandt is better known by his stage names of Little Steven and Miami Steve, the latter due to a previous penchant for Hawaiian shirts. With the E Street Band on sabbatical, he’s seized the opportunity to take his Disciples of Soul on the road and the band will arrive in Glasgow just weeks after his first new album of original material in 20 years – Summer of Sorcery.

Down the line from New York, he says: “I’ve managed to keep this amazing band together for two years, they were great to begin with but after being on the road you get better; that’s just how it works. People are going to see a 15-piece band, plus me and a very powerful, highly evolved rock meets soul sound. I will happily give anyone their money back if they complain because these are the best musicians in New York.”

Van Zandt delivers these words with the same Italian-American pep as his television screen characters Silvio Dante (The Sopranos) and Frank Tagliano (Lilyhammer). He finishes his pitch with a final verbal thrust: “People leave the shows with more energy than they came in. We’re going to take your mind off your problems, believe me.”

It’s now more than 50 years since the then-teenage Bruce Springsteen walked into a club and saw Van Zandt fronting a band. In his 2016 autobiography, Born To Run, Springsteen wrote: “So began one of the longest and greatest friendships of my life. I’d finally met someone who felt about music the same way I did, needed it the way I did, respected its power in a way that was a notch above the attitude of other musicians I’d come in contact with, somebody I understood and I felt understood me.”

Van Zandt and Springsteen learned their trade, sometimes playing together or in other bands. In the E Street Band he has taken on a number of roles, the alchemy of his friendship and creativity alongside Springsteen has helped make some of his bandleader’s greatest works even better. A case in point is fixing the main riff and melody for the definitive Born To Run. “He was bending a note”, explains Van Zandt, “it was like a Duane Eddy guitar riff and he wasn’t quite making it to the note he thought he was. I said: ‘I like that minor riff.’ He said: ‘What minor riff?’

"'So I explained it to him and he says: ‘That’s not what I’m playing.’ I said: ‘Well, that’s what I’m hearing.’ He credits me with fixing it and saving his career.”

While Stevie laughs off this notion he is aware of what he brings to the party. “I come in handy because I’m not only a good performer, singer and guitar player, I also produce, arrange and write – so I do all the things the artist could possibly need.” Van Zandt describes his role as a “consigliere” summoning the aforementioned role as the second-in-command Mafia chief to Tony Soprano.

“We’ve been best friends since we were 15 and I was a bandleader before I was a member of his band so I know both sides of it. In the old days, he relied on me as a right-hand man, adviser, friend and consigliere. I was someone he knew that he could lean on and depend on and that is still there; it doesn’t change.”

After finding success with both the E Street Band and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes, Van Zandt released Men Without Women, his first solo album with the Disciples of Soul in 1982. It flew the flag for big rock ’n’ soul arrangements and memorable ballads such as Princess of Little Italy, winning him significant critical acclaim. His 1984 follow up Voice of America was a noticeable shift in tone with politics now firmly at the forefront of his concerns. Shortly before the release of that album and as Springsteen’s iconic, juggernaut Born In The USA was about to turn his best friend into the biggest American rock act on the planet, he quit the E Street Band.

“I left for that journey of self-education. It was to learn how the world works and find out who I really am, why we are here and all those basic questions that I never thought about in my youth when you are supposed to be thinking about them because it was sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

The following year he formed Artists United Against Apartheid, recruiting the likes of Springsteen, Bono, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan to record Sun City, a rousing protest song which criticised the then-US president Ronald Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa.

Despite his exit from E Street he was invited back to appear in the promo video for Glory Days as classic rock flexed its cultural muscle in the mainstream, thanks to heavy rotation on MTV. When Van Zandt shared the mic up front with Springsteen it helped to create an enduring image of what the E Street Band still represents to a global fanbase. “That’s the difference of a band," says Van Zandt, “people want to see Bruce Springsteen with the band, rock music is about bands, it’s friendship, family and the gang – ultimately you are communicating with community. That’s why pop stars are solo artists – rock is a different communication – it’s not me, me, me – it’s us!”

Van Zandt would make a permanent return to the E Street Band in 1999. In 2002 he created his own rock ’n’ roll radio programme Little Steven’s Underground Garage which he continues to present, write and produce. It now reaches over 190 countries. Of late he has mustered his forces for Teach Rock putting together a free music curriculum for schools and educational facilities. The endeavour began 10 years ago when he was informed that art classes across American schools were being cut. “This was a bizarre legislation, when I was asked to help I got in touch with Teddy Kennedy and Mitch McConnell. They said it was an unintended consequence but we’re not going to change anything.”

Springsteen suggests Van Zandt’s “greatest legacy” has been to step in and put together a programme for schools around the world. Van Zandt has also invited teachers to workshops and performances in the UK. “We connected it to the Soulfire tour where we put aside 4,500 tickets as a thank you to the teachers – these are our most under-appreciated, underfunded and underpaid people. We have a workshop in-between the soundcheck and the show where our foundation people explain the basic curriculum, they come to the show and do the workshop for free. We just started that last year and 25,000 teachers registered, they reach about 100 kids each per year so already we have 2.5 million kids studying our curriculum.”

In the mid-1980s Little Steven was rock’s most vocal human rights activist setting the template for Bono and others. While he is happy to offer his opinion on issues such as Brexit – which he calls “ a huge, tragic mistake” – he says the forthcoming album and tour will provide an escape from politics rather than engagement. “My usefulness right now is to provide common ground for people. My very political self in the 1980s was fair enough, because a lot was hidden and many issues needed to be brought to light, now it’s a different environment where you have politics 24/7.”

Summer of Sorcery is a further attempt to move away from his more autobiographical and political work. “It's more about spiritual enlightenment and the wonderful romantic fantasy of summer," he says, suggesting the album is more of a concept album in the spirit of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. “The idea is of that first summer of consciousness when you fall in love with life and feel connected.”

On stage, he continues to create an almost religious feeling that celebrates the joyous, redemptive power of rock. “I study religion as a hobby and find it fascinating, these rituals we use go back very deeply into our strongest feelings and history so I’m not so quick to write it off as some kind of mass hysteria. I have more respect for it than that and I tend to use it in different ways, that is basically what soul music is, it comes from gospel which is speaking directly to God and that’s about as heavy as it gets, that that kind of religious intensity can be quite useful.”

Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul will play the 02 Academy, Glasgow on Monday, May 20. Summer of Sorcery is out now