Little Steven Van Zandt has made a few magical memories in Tampa Bay over the years.
There was the gig in 1975 shortly after he joined Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, when they played the old Tampa Jai Alai Fronton in support of Born to Run ("I actually do remember that; it was an unusual gig"). There was the gig in 2008 when the E Streeters played their first gig after the death of organist Danny Federici ("I just remember missing him, looking over on that side of the stage, and expecting to see him. It still happens"). And, of course, there was Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, when the Boss thrust his way into millions of living rooms around the globe ("It goes by in a flash, whatever it was, 13 minutes, and it’s a lot of fun").
But when he comes to Clearwater on Saturday, Van Zandt’s hoping to leave fans with some unique memories of their own.
Before Little Steven and his 15-piece Disciples of Soul perform at the Capitol Theatre, the guitarist will gather a slew of local teachers for a free two-hour workshop about his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s TeachRock curriculum, designed to get kids interested in learning about the music of the 20th century. Teachers who sign up will receive two free tickets to the show.
"We’re celebrating teachers and honoring them, and giving them some of the respect that they deserve," Van Zandt says, calling en route to a gig in Connecticut. "We’re showing solidarity with all of the striking teachers around the country right now — West Virginia just ended, and I think Kentucky and Oklahoma are going on right now. They’re the most underappreciated and undervalued and underpaid working class in our country."
While he won’t be leading the seminars, Van Zandt does plan to appear at each one. It’s hard to imagine a more qualified expert.
In addition to sharing a mic with Springsteen for many of the last 50 years, Van Zandt has been a prolific contributor to other artists while leading his own successful solo career. He’s also the founder of Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a syndicated radio show and SiriusXM channel spotlighting garage rock from the ’60s to today.
"We’ve introduced over 1,000 new bands in the Underground Garage over the last 10, 15 years — they continue to appear in spite of the fact that it no longer makes any sense to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, really," he says. "If you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band at this point, it’s purely out of passion — which makes us want to support you even more."
Van Zandt is something of an encyclopedia of rock styles and subgenres, especially those from the ’60s, "an amazingly monocultural decade" when artists all chased the same influences.
"We had the British Invasion in ’64, we had folk rock in ’65, country rock in ’66, psychedelic in ’67, blues rock in ’68, and then Southern rock in ’69," he says.
Southern rock was never Van Zandt’s thing, although he does recall playing a few early gigs with the Allman Brothers Band back when the Boss’ combo went by the Bruce Springsteen Band.
"We had a different name every six months, so it’s a little hard to remember," he said. "I think it was the very first time we actually used Bruce’s name in the band, which actually took me weeks to talk him into."
When asked if his association with Springsteen means Van Zandt appears as a figure in the very rock-history curriculum he’s trying to teach, he gives a long, low, rumbling chuckle.
"Only maybe in sort of a peripheral, incidental way," he says. "We focus more on the history before my time. Really, the most important part of it is the ’50s and ’60s, when it comes to rock. I’m a tangential, visiting extra in this movie. It’s about more important people than me."
At the end of the day, he just wants to keep kids’ attention in for at least one class, which might entice them to stay in school long enough to earn a diploma.
"Every kid’s into music," he says. "It’s the only art form that was half created by blacks, half created by whites, rock ‘n’ roll. Big contribution by women, big contribution by Hispanics, Latinos. It’s a wonderful common ground to have a discussion about.
"You can’t begin teaching anybody something until you have their attention, and the best way to have their attention is to discover that common ground that kids are interested in. That’s what music is. We’ve used that to break down the barrier between teachers and students. Music just does that immediately."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.