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A conversation with Little Steven

Posted by Sarah Rodman  August 13, 2012 10:42 AM

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Credit: Jo Lopez

In today's Globe we have a conversation with longtime Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt. He was in great spirits, excited about the next leg of the "Wrecking Ball" tour which kicks off Tuesday at Fenway Park and includes another show at the ballyard Wednesday and one at Gillette Stadium on Saturday. 

We talked about his acting career on "The Sopranos" and "Lilyhammer"-- the Netflix series on which he stars and also writes and produces. At the moment Van Zandt is trying to figure out how to shoot the second season without missing any tour dates. We also discussed the "Wrecking Ball" set list, his visit to "American Idol," and his radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage, which airs Sundays from 10 p.m. to midnight on WROR (105.7).  (As well as his channels on Sirius XM satellite radio.)

The syndicated show is a major point of pride with Van Zandt saying they have introduced over 500 bands over the course of ten years. "I can't imagine anybody else playing Tom Jones covering Howlin' Wolf," he said with a laugh. "That's made for the Underground Garage."

Due to space constraints we weren't able to include all of the chat so here are a few more excerpts.

Q. I have to say I forgot pretty quickly that you were you on "The Sopranos" and it was the hair. Because Little Steven isn't Little Steven without the bandanna.

A. That turned out to be a really wonderful accident, because whatever I do as an actor there will always be that thing: Whatever weird new hair you have, you become a different guy. And the bandanna came in handy that way.

Q. It's like your superhero cape.

A. Exactly. (Laughs.) When people asked me what the biggest challenge is, I say the biggest challenge is getting all that hair under the bandanna. (Laughs.)

Q. Are people still asking you on the street about the end of "The Sopranos"?

A. Yes and it will never stop. That article that came out in "Vanity Fair" helped me quite a bit because I gave a definitive answer. I noticed the questions cut down by 90 percent. If you ask people "Did you want to see the family wiped out?" "No." "Did you want to see the kids killed?"  "No." "Then what did you want to see?" They couldn't answer what their ending would've been so in the end they realized David Chase is a genius and that's that.

Q. Your life has taken some interesting turns, the most recent of which is your starring turn in the Netflix series "Lilyhammer." And now you're huge in Norway, right?

A. We [the band] were actually quite popular before. We just went back and played there after "Lilyhammer" had run and it was absurd.

Q. Did you get bigger cheers than Bruce?

A. (Laughs.) I didn't have the applause meter out. But it was a lot of fun I've got to tell you. I watched 30-40,000 Norwegians just turn into Italians. They're just as crazy and wild now as any audience in Southern Europe. It's amazing for a country whose reputation was very conservative and stoic, and in many ways they are, but when it comes to Bruce and the E Street Band they're just as crazy and wild as you can imagine.

Q.  "Lilyhammer" was much funnier than I was expecting.

A. We didn't want to make it a straight ahead comedy or a farce so we made it a dramedy, where we can have serious moments but it would be lighter than "The Sopranos." Norway is not crazy about violence on TV so we tried to make it a little bit lighter.

Q. Talk a little bit about how the set list works.

A. He'll write up a perfunctory list five minutes before we go on just to have it. We do have these two themes that are quite serious and quite important this tour, which come from the album: the economic situation which puts us, for the first time maybe ever, in the same place in the entire western world. And the even bigger theme of death and loss which comes, of course, from [the deaths of E Street Band members] Clarence [Clemons] and Danny [Federici], and how the dead continue to live through the living and their spirits remain and continue to inform us. And those two themes are rather deep and serious which is why the show has ended up being three and a half hours on a regular basis. It requires that much time to explore those serious themes. And then we do throw in some fun. But to really examine these things, and to have this very serious conversation as we've been having with our audience for 35-40 years, it requires some time. There are a few songs that are anchor songs, that must be played every night. What ends up happening is the audience writes the show, it's not the list that Bruce writes. So every show is uniquely done for that particular audience. There's no two shows the same because there's no two audiences the same.

Q. But you've got to have personal favorites you'd like to play. Do you ever make suggestions?

A. Yeah, we have those discussions for sure, sometimes right in the middle of the set in front of 40,000 people. (Laughs.) We're so comfortable onstage it may be a little too comfortable.

Q. It's always impressive when Bruce calls an audible or takes an audience request and you all seem to just know the songs.

A.  Well, there will be a discussion sometimes: "Does this song have a bridge? Does anyone remember that bridge?" (Laughs.) Some are a little smoother than others but it's all in good fun.

Q. You all are playing these marathon shows. I'm sure the fans appreciate it but you must be exhausted.

A. You want it to be physically exhausting. That's part of the trip. You're not finished until it's physically exhausting. Different communication happens at different levels of physicality. The energy at the beginning of the show has one communication. The exhaustion at the end of the show has another communication, and everything in between. So you're bringing the audience as far as you can to that point where you are both physically exhausted and yet mentally and spiritually stimulated.

Q. After your guest appearance this past season, is your old buddy Jimmy Iovine trying to convince you to appear again on "American Idol"? It seemed like you had a good time.

A. You know what? It really was something that I did enjoy. I didn't know what to expect. My wife is actually a big fan of the show. She was the one who was very aware of it and I wasn't. I did it as a favor for Jimmy that day as a mentor. It turns out that the five kids I met were really terrific and genuinely talented and I was quite surprised and impressed by the whole thing actually. People tend to put it down who I guess are just more insecure than I am. I don't see it as any type of threat. Any show that brings out Smokey Robinson, I'm like "what is wrong with that?" Hello? Who else is turning this generation on to Smokey Robinson? That alone justifies the show.

Q. So is Jimmy hard at work helping you put together a band for your next solo album which is long overdue?

A. Oh my God, I'm not sure there will be another one of those. (Laughs.) I've got to get the old ones out, that's what I've got to do, they're not available. Over the years I have almost gone out with a soul revue, which I threatened to do literally for 25 years. Maybe someday I will but we're kind of doing that now-- my whole life has now been absorbed into the E Street Band. (Laughs.) We kind of did it for the 25th anniversary of the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame. We brought out Darlene Love and Sam Moore and that's the kind of thing I wanted to do. I wanted to bring out three or four singers and do a combination of my songs and their songs and it would've been a revue. But musically my interest right now is in doing scores. I almost scored "Lilyhammer." I wrote the theme song and a few of the cues. When you hear the crazy Norwegian violins that's me. When you hear the guitar and piano that's the other guy actually ironically. But maybe season two I'll get a chance to score the whole thing because that really is where my head is at at the moment. You never say never about a solo record but it's not exactly scheduled at the moment. (Laughs.)

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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