- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2017

He’s known around the world as “Little Steven,” instantly recognizable with his bandana-sporting presence strumming out hot rhythm guitar riffs next to New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band. He’s also tried his hand at acting, playing tough guys like strip club owner Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos” and gangster Frank Tagliano on the Netflix series “Lilyhammer.”

But Steven Van Zandt, the same man who has shredded uptempo rock anthems alongside the Boss for decades and made a cottage industry of playing on-screen murderers, has a heart of pure gold. Accordingly, Mr. Van Zandt heads to The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, Saturday night for The Rock and Roll for Children Foundation (RRFC) annual fundraising event to raise money for The Children’s Inn at NIH, where young patients can take a break from tests and treatments for rare diseases and instead be just kids.

Mr. Van Zandt, who will headline Saturday’s concert with his band Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, said he got involved with the RRFC upon the nudging of some of his rock ‘n’ roll cronies.

“They told me about it, and it sounded like a good thing,” Mr. Van Zandt told The Washington Times. “It’s one of the better causes around America, and I’m proud to support it.”

While Mr. Van Zandt is primarily known as a guitarist and backup vocalist for Mr. Springsteen, he has made his imprint on rock ‘n’ roll behind the scenes as a prolific songwriter — frequently for other artists. One of his more famous compositions is “I Am a Patriot,” which was a hit for Jackson Browne.

Mr. Van Zandt said he is looking forward to playing his own songs Saturday, including, for the first time anywhere, those from his upcoming solo album.

“We’re making it a very special event by virtue of the fact that it will be the debut of my new album,” which will be available to the public in September, Mr. Van Zandt said. “The album is mostly me covering me — me doing songs that I’ve written for other people.”

Mr. Van Zandt recorded the new album — which includes both originals as well as covers of songs by Etta James and James Brown — during a break from globetrotting with Mr. Springsteen last fall. Mr. Van Zandt released the first single from the album, “St. Valentine’s Day,” on the eponymous Feb. 14 last month.

Mr. Van Zandt brightens audibly at the notion of once again performing his own compositions versus handing them off to someone else, be it Mr. Browne or even former E Street bandmate Southside Johnny.

“There’s almost nothing more satisfying than the creative process,” he said. “Any time you write a good song, it’s an accomplishment. It’s nice to revisit that side of … my personality that I walked away from many years ago.”

Being the frontman of his own band also allows Mr. Van Zandt to play lead guitar instead of rhythm, as well as show off more ornamentation on his choice Stratocaster, 12-string Rickenbacker and Les Paul axes when standing at center stage.

“The job with the E Street Band is to be that really clean rhythm guitar. That’s my role,” he said of his time beside the Boss. “I’m still making that transition back to ‘being me,’” he added with a laugh.

Accordingly, when asked if any E Street tunes will make it on to Saturday’s setlist, Mr. Van Zandt stands firm that his day job hits like “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark” will not make an appearance.

“I’m making the transition back to my own thing,” he said, emphasizing that no songs by Mr. Springsteen will be played at The Fillmore.

Despite being fully committed to his solo work, Mr. Van Zandt remains a proud member of the Jersey Shore group. With the E Street Band currently on hiatus from touring, this allows Mr. Van Zandt the time to both write more music as well as look at scripts for his next acting project.

Mr. Springsteen once played a small role on “Lilyhammer,” the Netflix show Mr. Van Zandt starred on for three seasons. The plan had been for his “Sopranos” co-star, James Gandolfini, to also cameo on the program, however, Gandolfini died in 2013 of a heart attack before such plans could be realized.

“We had a whole scene written. It was going to be really cool,” Mr. Van Zandt said of getting his former co-star and friend on “Lilyhammer.” “He was one of the greatest actors of all time as far as I’m concerned. What a huge loss.”

In addition to his songwriting and acting, Mr. Van Zandt keeps busy as the weekly host of “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” on SiriusXM. Such a hectic schedule, he said, doesn’t allow for much in the way of socializing.

“I don’t see my friends as often as I would like to unless I’m working with them,” he said.

However, he doesn’t need to be at his own homestead to do what he does best.

“When it comes to songwriting, I can write anywhere. I can write on the road, I can write on an airplane,” he said.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that his trip to the nation’s capital won’t allow for any sightseeing. This weekend is all about the music — and the charity.

“The charity is a wonderful thing — it’s important,” he said of The Children’s Inn, which has served more than 12,000 children and their families since opening in 1990. “On top of it being a good charity, it’s a very special place for kids. I don’t think there’s anything like [it]in the world.”

But this is, after all, a rock show, and Mr. Van Zandt says that audiences for The Rock and Roll for Children Foundation show will thoroughly enjoy themselves while supporting a great cause at the same time.

“It’s gonna be a great night,” he said.

For information on tickets to The Rock and Roll for Children Foundation concert, auction or to donate to the Children’s Inn at NIH, visit RockandRollforChildren.org

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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