Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 11:05 PM
Steve Van Zandt almost lost his faith in rock and roll.
And if not for a flag football game, a dislocated finger, and a stint on the oldies circuit with the Philadelphia vocal group the Dovells, he might never have gotten it back.
But let the Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano sidekick and Underground Garage satellite radio mahoff who will bring his 15-piece Little Steven & His Disciples of Soul band to the Electric Factory on Sunday tell the tale himself.
“I had quit music and gone to work construction in the early ’70s,” recalls the guitarist, songwriter, and producer, who is touring behind his roaring rock-and-soul collection Soulfire, which reintroduces him as a solo artist with his first album of his own music in 18 years.
He and Springsteen had spent the late 1960s chasing Jersey Shore rock dreams. “We were in different bands every couple of months. I’d be in his band, he’d be in my band,” says Van Zandt, calling from “some Mexican joint” in New York on a recent afternoon, talking while enjoying a plate of nachos and a margarita.
But by the early 1970s, he remembers, “I felt like we blew it. It was over.” He hurt his hand playing football, though, and “to exercise the finger, I joined a bar band as a piano player. And a guy in that band had a cousin who was one of the Dovells.”
“So here I am, I’m meeting all the pioneers of rock — Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard,” the latter of whom would officiate at Van Zandt’s wedding to his bride, Maureen, in 1982. “I’m loving it, but they’re all in terrible moods. …. the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, and the Kinks put their heroes out of work, and they ended up on the oldies circuit.”
The tour ended up in Miami, playing Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve show at the end of 1973 at the Deauville Hotel, “which is where the Dovells got their name.”
“I bought all these flowered shirts down there,” he recalls. “And I came home and kept wearing them at the Stone Pony in January. That’s when Bruce started calling me Miami Steve, and I formed Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.”
Along with joining Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1975 (and arranging the horns on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”), Van Zandt produced and largely wrote Southside’s first three (and best) albums of “Miami Horn”-fired blue-eyed R&B, starting with 1976’s I Don’t Want to Go Home. Van Zandt reprises the title cut, the first song he ever wrote, on Soulfire.
His role with the Jukes and as Springsteen’s consigliere started a pattern that’s persisted throughout his career.
“If I had to describe myself in a word, it would be producer. That’s what I enjoy most,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who was inducted as a member of the E Street Band in 2014.
“Creating whatever it might be, whether it’s producing a record” — such as 2015’s Introducing Darlene Love, by the girl-group powerhouse, on his own Wicked Cool label — “or a radio show or a TV show.” After The Sopranos ended in 2007, Van Zandt starred in the Netflix drama Lillyhammer, in which he again played a hairpiece-wearing mafioso, this time on the run in Norway. He executive-produced and cowrote the show, and directed the final episode.
“I never wanted to be the boss,” he says. “My role in The Sopranos was really modeled after my relationship with Bruce. Silvio Dante was the only character in the Sopranos who didn’t want to be the boss.”
“Fronting the band is a lot of work,” he says. “With Bruce, I’m [messing] around for the whole show. I’ve basically got a front-row seat to the greatest show on earth. My role is to play the clean rhythm guitar that all rock bands need. Bruce and Nils [Lofgren] do all the solos. He might throw me one solo a month, which is fine. I’m not there to show people how good of a guitar player I am.”
Still, in the early 1980s, Van Zandt got the itch to front his own band. On the 1982 underrated classic Men Without Women, he took a “Motown-based straight-ahead soul” approach. Personal songs like “Save Me” and “Until the Good is Gone” were “about music being my religion. Not just a career. It was bigger than that to me.”
But as the 1980s moved on, Van Zandt became a political firebrand, “half artist, half journalist,” with Voice of America (1984) and Freedom: No Compromise (1987). He organized the Artists United Against Apartheid all-star group, with the 1984 protest “Sun City.”
“Everyone thought Ronald Reagan was God, and I didn’t. And I thought it was my obligation to to throw some light on a whole lot of things that were being covered up, or not talked about.”
Does he feel a similar responsibility now?
“I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump. He explains himself every day. It seems so obvious what’s going on, that it’s redundant to even talk about it, honestly.”
He intends to use his music to create a refuge. “I just feel right now I’m more valuable, for people coming to see the show, if I transport you to another place for two hours, and get you out of politics for a minute.
“The main thing is to be part of a healing process. I want people to leave with more energy than they came with. I want it to be a spiritual fuel stop to enrich their lives in a way that’s totally away from daily life and daily frustrations. If I can do that, I think I’m doing my job.”
Van Zandt wasn’t planning on making a comeback. He recorded Soulfire quickly after being hired out of the blue to play a festival in London last October. Musically, it connects back to Men Without Women, with songs that Van Zandt wrote for Southside and others, along with covers of James Brown and Etta James.
“Every one of my albums before has been very conceptual, very thematic. Going into this record, I said I’m going to make the concept of this record me. I’m going to emphasize me as a songwriter, singer, and guitar player.
“So I picked the songs that I wrote for other people that meant the most to me,” he says. “It became an introduction to myself, who I am. … And it turned out to be very artistically satisfying.”
Rededicated, he plans to follow it with albums of new songs and tour with the Disciples, which includes five horns and three backup singers. “It’s a big sound, let me tell you,” he says, and laughs. “It’s a very expensive hobby.”
That is, when his Boss leaves him unoccupied, as he will be through February, with the Springsteen on Broadway project that begins previews Tuesday. He scheduled his tour to make sure he was free on opening night, just as Springsteen was when Van Zandt debuted the Disciples in Jersey this year.
A few weeks back at Madison Square Garden, the old friends joined Paul McCartney for “I Saw Her Standing There.” “As we went on stage, Bruce said to me, ‘What are the odds of you and me being here?’ When you think about those days when we were listening to that record and trying to learn how to play it on guitar? Those odds have to start at about one billion to one. We were just awestruck by them. They introduced us to the world we live in.”
Music An Evening With Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Electric Factory, 421 N. 7th St., Tickets: $45-$50. Information: 215-627-1332, electricfactory.info.