Reuniting the Rascals: Steven Van Zandt is ready
Posted December 11, 2012
This month is a huge one for Steven Van Zandt.
And that's saying something, considering he's had a decades-long, legendary career as a musician, songwriter, actor and producer, including, of course, his continuing gig as a founding member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
But at this particular moment, he's juggling several projects close to his heart. He's on tour with Bruce while getting set for the premiere of Not Fade Away, a film by The Sopranos creator David Chase. It's a coming-of-age story about a young man forming a band in the '60s, on which Van Zandt served as executive producer and musical supervisor. In a few weeks, he'll jet off to Norway for the second season of the gangster series Lilyhammer, which broke ratings records in that country and has become a surprise success in the U.S. after streaming on Netflix.
And on Thursday, Van Zandt will be at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., to oversee the first of six reunion shows with the Rascals, featuring the soul group's original lineup of Felix Cavaliere, Gene Cornish, Eddie Brigati and Dino Danelli. The concerts will be the band's first public performances in 40 years.
He won't be performing, but Van Zandt is the driving force behind the band's comeback, as well as the producer and director of what he's calling a combination concert and theatrical event.
"Sort of like Jersey Boys with the Four Seasons actually in it," Van Zandt says with a laugh. "I want young people and new generations to see this group, and also the fans who've been waiting since 1970 when they broke up. They've never performed live with all four original members. So this is very historic."
We caught up with Van Zandt by phone from Los Angeles, where he was juggling Springsteen concerts and Rascals rehearsals. He promises to be at every one of the Rascals' performances in Port Chester this month, calling the production "the biggest thing I've ever done."
Q: So how did you become involved with reuniting the Rascals?
A: It's going back a long way. I'm a big fan of theirs. They were the first rock and roll band I ever saw. They were very, very exciting, very influential - the first real blue-eyed soul band I ever saw. White guys who were communicating black music. In those days, that was still unusual. They had all the passion of soul music in a rock-band sort of way that white kids could relate to. They were a major influence on my life, and it just so happens that Bruce Springsteen was also at the same show. It was the first band he ever saw also.
Q: Maybe that's what's kept you two together for so long.
A: Yes! We share the same influences. So I was called in, believe it or not, to reunite the Rascals in 1982, by a mutual friend, and they weren't ready yet. And every decade or so, I would give it a try. Finally three years ago, there was a (cancer charity) Kristen Ann Carr Fund benefit and (my wife) Maureen said to me, "Let's do something special at this benefit show. Let's give it one more try and see if we can get the Rascals back together." Sure enough, it was just the right moment and because it was a good cause, they had a reason to put aside whatever, their differences, and that was the beginning.
Q: This isn't a regular concert, though. It's being billed as a theatrical event.
A: I thought to myself, this is too important to just have a concert. It doesn't feel like enough. People know their music: They had 18 hits in five years, and three No. 1 records. People know Groovin', People Got to Be Free. But they don't know much about the band. They don't realize People Got to Be Free was an anthem of the civil rights movement, and how involved in civil rights they were. They just have a story to tell. So we filmed them telling their story and that'll be in snippets on this huge screen. And we filmed some actors acting out a couple of scenes from their past. And mix that in with a full concert? We're still rehearsing but it looks like it's going to be 27, 28 songs, more than they've ever played live…it's going to be an interesting artistic innovation, as well as a celebration of the Rascals music and a tribute to them. It's a nice way of saying how much they meant to me.
Q: Why did you choose the Capitol Theatre as a venue?
A: Peter Shapiro - the guy who restored the Capitol back to its 1926 magnificence - plays a major role in this story. It was his enthusiasm when me and (co-producer and lighting veteran) Marc (Brickman) approached him with the idea to do something new, and to really use the theater for its maximum potential. Peter was hip enough to put in projectors and a state-of-the-art lighting system. So he's going to really get a chance to show off what the theater can do…and it's only 1,400 seats. There's literally not a bad seat in the house. It's completely intimate, yet it's an old-fashioned, huge stage. So you have that wonderful combination of great seating, but the big-ness that we need for the show.
Q: You launched a Kickstarter campaign to help produce the show and raised over $100,000. Why use that forum to find investors?
A: Frankly, the production is going to be costing more like $1.5 million, so the $100,000 we raised from Kickstarter was more important in a symbolic way. It's a wonderful way to get the audience to show their enthusiasm for this project. Whatever you could afford - whether it's $1 or $5,000 - we didn't care, we just want you to participate. We want your vote of confidence…and it was a way to start the project from grassroots up, rather than taking the normal route of going to investors. There will be investors coming to the show, and we'll see if we want to take it to Broadway. We may want to take it on the road. And that will require serious investors in the millions.
Q: Speaking of reunions, you recently collaborated with David Chase on his first feature film. How did you connect with your old Sopranos boss - and former co-star James Gandolfini - on that project?
A: I guess it is kind of a reunion in a way. We've been talking about that particular film, that script, for years. Because it's so based on music, and so based on David's young life as a drummer in a band, it was a nice fit obviously to have somebody like me to bounce musical ideas off of. My whole life has been what the film was about. So it was a perfect kind of combination. And then Jimmy Gandolfini coming in to play the kid's father was a nice little addition. It was like getting the old band back together.
Q: You're touring with Bruce and the E Street Band now, just as you have for decades. What do you all do to keep things fresh onstage?
A: We totally reinvented ourselves this year. This is beyond keeping things fresh. We really spent a long time talking about what to do. Losing (saxophonist) Clarence (Clemons, who died last year) was such a major, major thing that we really felt in order to continue, we had to reinvent ourselves. There was no way to replace him, so we decided to go in a different direction. We put in a five-piece horn section, and added gospel singers, and added more of a literal soulful approach to the music. A little more of a literal translation, if you will, of the soul roots that I'm talking about. It's a year I'm very, very proud of.
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