is one confident dude.
He sees the world as being in a disastrous state - “It’s unbelievable what’s going on; we’re in a civil war here” - and so decides to make an album, Summer of Sorcery (3 May 2019; Wicked Cool/UME), as celebratory and as sunny as could be. And then he organizes a huge world tour to cheer us all up! Some have said that his ‘reliance’ on the sound of the 60s has gone a bit too far, but he succeeds in his objective; this album sounds great, is full of infectious pop riffs, and is going to be a real blast to listen to live.
"With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day," says Van Zandt. "That was the feeling in the '60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. You kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost […] some of that romantic fantasy of summer; that feeling of youthful innocence and optimism.”
Van Zandt achieves this by not skimping on a cent and by relying on what he knows. He seemingly returns to his trusty1999 Fender Stratocaster and backs it up with his top-draw 14-piece road band (including Lowell ‘Banana’ Levinger on piano, Jack Daley on bass, Rich Mercurio on drums) and five horns (including Stan Harrison on tenor sax, Ron Tooley and Ravi Best on trumpet and Clark Gayton on trombone). “I [then] added three background vocalists because I thought that’s the one thing I’ve never done before and it’ll be a new element to my thing. I just grew up loving The Shirelles and The Chiffons and Darlene Love. It’s a genre unto itself,” he says.
Next he brought on board producers Marc Ribler and Geoff Sanoff and his long-time mixers Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig to pay tribute to artists such as Van Morrison, James Brown, and the Beach Boys. He employs Phil Spector-like sonics on several tracks and crosses genres such as the Blues, Latin, classic rock, and Blaxploitation on 12 tracks.”I wanted to do twelve little movies and be a different character in each movie,” he says.
The album kicks off with the barnstorming Communion, which Van Zandt says carries a key message of the whole album: harmony, unity, communion. ”I tried opening the album with a show opener that’s going to just sort of sum up what you’re about to experience”, he says. This leads into Love Again, which showcases the three backing singers in full 60s flow, and is described as a Sam Cooke tribute.
More female singalong harmonies follows in the upbeat A World of Our Own, which evokes that innocent summertime loving feeling, in true Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta-style.
Thankfully Van Zandt, however, can’t entirely let go of his political roots. His song Gravity laments the state of the USA (“Two hundred years of muscle, You blew it all trying to be the boss”); while his reworking of his tune Education praises teachers highly. "Teachers need to be supported; there needs to be more funding,” he says in one interview. And he has backed up his commitment in good style, by saying that all teachers, plus a guest, can see his live shows for free.
The album closes with the epic Summer of Sorcery, which again returns to the subject of romance. "The whole theme of the album is summed up in that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer," says Van Zandt.
Yes, Van Zandt is shamelessly evoking the power of love, sunshine and the sound of the 60s, and it is not beyond criticism; but if you take that approach and take it too seriously, you’ll miss the fun. “I achieved what I set out to do,” he says. “I created a collection of fictional movies scenes that feel like summer; and I’m proud of it!”