Thinking big is just something Little Steven (aka Steven Van Zandt) does. As a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, the idea man behind Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, and the founder and leader of Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, the notion of two guitars, bass, and drums just doesn't cut it for him -- he wants the scale and dynamics that come from multiple guitars and keyboards, horns, and massed vocals. But there's big and then there's big, and Van Zandt has truly upped the ante with 2019's Summer of Sorcery, the first studio album from Little Steven's new edition of the Disciples of Soul. The fact this band now has a credited Musical Director (Marc Ribler, who also plays guitar) should tip anyone off that this is one big rock & roll band, and the official lineup includes a whopping 15 musicians and vocalists, with another 12 guest artists pitching in. Unsurprisingly, Summer of Sorcery presents 12 songs imagined and executed on a grand scale, using every bit of musical firepower at Steven's disposal, and while the blue-eyed-soul-on-steroids sound of 1982's Men Without Women is clearly the starting point for this music, that's hardly where it ends. "A World of Our Own" conjures the spirit of Phil Spector's salad days, "Vortex" could have come from the soundtrack of some lost '70s action movie, "Party Mambo" sounds like, well, a Party Mambo, and "Gravity" cuts a seriously funky groove. These days, Little Steven is less interested in politics than he was in the '80s, though he certainly has social commentary on his mind (it appears he has little use for smartphones or social media) and there's a phantasmagorical bent to the lyrics, though if he believes in any sort of magic, it's clearly music. The sheer scale of Summer of Sorcery sometimes gets to be a bit much, between the wordiness of the lyrics and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements, but if this a bit much to take in in a single sitting, it's all but impossible not to be impressed by the scope of Little Steven's vision, and the skill with which he and his collaborators bring it to fruition. And he still knows how to write a song that speaks from his heart, regardless of what is on his mind. Imagine Asbury Park, New Jersey encompassing an entire musical planet and you'll have an idea of what Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul are doing on Summer of Sorcery, and if you dig rockin' soul, this should be right up your alley.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming