SAN FRANCISCO — Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul opened their show at the Fillmore on Friday with a cover of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and didn’t let up from there.
Surrounded by a 14-member band that included a five-piece horn section, three backup singers, two keyboardists, a drummer and a percussionist, Steven Van Zandt gave the crowd a wall of sound for two and a half hours spanning rock and roll, blues and soul.
Spending most of the show at center stage with his trademark bandana, Little Steven handled the vocals and most lead guitar. He could absolutely shred a solo with the best of them; several of his solos put most hard rockers to shame. Unfortunately for a few stretches, he put the guitar down to focus solely on singing, at which point he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. And some people should absolutely not try to dance.
The show was part of the Soulfire Teacher Solidarity Tour to give back to teachers, which Van Zandt described as “the most underpaid but the most important profession.” Teachers got free tickets and, judging by the cheer that line got, there were a lot of them in the crowd.
Van Zandt’s setlist covered both his career and his influences. Just over half were his own songs, while the rest were songs he wrote for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Gary U.S. Bonds, as well as several covers spread throughout the show. A highlight was a cover of James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” from the movie Black Caesar, in which all five members of the horn section each got a solo.
Despite arguably being best known as a member of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (he’s also well-known as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos) he never touched on the songs he wrote for or with Springsteen. In fact, The Boss only ever came up once: a mention of “the old days with Bruce,” while Southside Johnny got three songs covered and a special shoutout by Van Zandt for “still touring and keeping the music alive while I was pretending to be a mobster on TV.”
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As one would expect from a radio host—his show Underground Garage has been nationally syndicated since 2003—most songs came with a story. Some were just lists of songs and artists, which went over well with the older members of the crowd who were clearly looking for nostalgia. But others were funny and compelling.
For example, in introducing “Until the Good is Gone,” Van Zandt explained that there wasn’t a lot to do in Asbury Park, “so we did a lot of hanging around and practicing our craft. Our inspiration came from this little box, some of them are still around. I wrote this song in dedication to that little box. It’s called a radio.”
The show’s big highlight came near the end. Rather than taking a few minutes to leave the stage, listen to the crowd cheer a bit, then come back for a couple more songs, the Disciples of Soul used that time to add another song. They brought out San Francisco music legend Nick “The Greek” Gravenites to perform a song.
Despite not having the name recognition of some of his mid- to late-’60s contemporaries, Gravenites was right in the middle of the San Francisco music scene. He wrote songs for Janis Joplin and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, produced albums for Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Brewer and Shipley song “One Toke Over the Line.” He also cofounded and sang for the short-lived but legendary band The Electric Flag.
Gravenites was a bit slow getting to center stage, and a bit shaky adjusting the mic, but when he broke into Electric Flag’s hit “Groovin’ is Easy,” it might as well have been 1968 again. He’s a man who’s more than a little familiar with the Fillmore, and as soon as the music started that familiarity shone through. And the band seemed to enjoy the experience even more than the crowd.