He has been Bruce Springsteen’s sideman in the E Street Band and Tony Soprano’s consigliere Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos.” He can currently be seen as witness-protected gangster Frank “the Fixer” Tagliano on the Netflix original series “Lilyhammer” and heard as the host of the syndicated radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. He even popped into “American Idol” last season. We chatted with Steven Van Zandt on the eve of the arrival of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to Fenway Park for two shows Tuesday and Wednesday and a show at Gillette Stadium Saturday.
Q. Congratulations on 10 years of “The Underground Garage.” Did you envision hitting this milestone when you started?
A. Not bad, yeah. It’s not something you think about. You do it one week at a time. It’s certainly my pride and joy and I love it and my affiliates are my family. Now that we’ve become an institution it seems obvious that we should be on the radio, but it wasn’t that way when we started, so it required some courage on their part and I really appreciate that.
Q. Do you have young listeners coming up to you saying you’ve turned them on to music, old or new?
A. Oh, hundreds and hundreds. I mean, there are people who just know me as a DJ first of all, which is really quite entertaining. (Laughs.) But yeah, that was the whole idea: Let’s turn people on to the greatest music ever made, number one. Let’s raise the standards, number two, so that future bands are not listening to typical pop radio thinking that that’s all there is.
Q. Although you’re a rock star there’s a part of you that always wanted to do this, isn’t there?
A. Well it justifies my entire wayward youth. (Laughs.) All those records I listened to and wore out. And I just miss it, man. The ’50s and ’60s was when this art form was created and peaked, and there was just so much fabulous music in the air you walked six inches above the ground. It just literally lifted you, it gave you a buoyancy that helped you get through the day, and I miss that. These days it’s like you’re walking in quicksand. I wanted the next generation to experience a little of that and become a radio show you can trust.
‘It’s fun to be the king. I know I discovered this rather late in life.’
Q. Speaking of people who only know you as a DJ, there must be a whole group of people who only know you as an actor from “The Sopranos,” right? Have most people put two and two together?
A. Most people — but there were fairly recent moments where I would be somewhere backstage and run into an actor and the actor would say, “What are you doing here? Are you a Bruce fan also?” (Laughs.)
Q. So they were basically outing themselves as not very observant Springsteen fans?
A. (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s that they don’t look to his left. And those who just met me as an actor probably had that look that I had as an actor in their minds. They don’t immediately associate the bandanna with “the bandanna.” But it is hilarious to me that that can still happen. I love it, I really do. The very first thing that I was afraid of — I said I must work very hard to make sure when people are watching “The Sopranos,” they don’t say, “Oh, I saw that guy play in Cleveland!” I did not want to be a distraction.
Q. In real life you are a musical consigliere to the Boss and on “The Sopranos” you were consigliere to a crime boss. How does it feel to be the boss on “Lilyhammer”?
A. You know what? I discovered something. It’s fun to be the king. I know I discovered this rather late in life. (Laughs.) Honestly, you know what happens, when everything is revolving around you, you’re waiting around less and that’s wonderful.
Q. Some of the band plays on “Wrecking Ball,” but is it different touring for a Bruce solo album vs. a band record?
A. Well, it’s interesting because it’s the first time it’s ever happened. I think the only difference was it probably required a few extra days of rehearsal to make that transition. There’s always a transition from any record to the stage. You’re always going to make some adjustments even if you did do the record. In this case, since we didn’t, it did take an extra day or two to make some adjustments to capture the essence of the songs while at the same time doing the E Street version of it. It is a wonderful solo record. I just think he made the right record at the right time. He’s never been more consistent thematically, more clear, more focused ever, so I think it was easy to adapt for the E Street Band, which are going to make these songs even more direct with our arrangements. I’ve got to tell you, it’s been very rewarding. You really feel like you’re doing something important, because essentially you’re going around the world telling people, “Listen, you’re not alone, there’s a problem going on here that we’re all feeling.” That is comforting to people, just to vent that frustration. We’re not pretending to solve any problems here but the beginning of solutions is at least having that conversation and recognizing there is a problem and we all share in it.
Q. At the show in March at the TD Garden, the passage dedicated to the late members of the band, Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, seemed very celebratory as opposed to funereal.
A. Yeah and that is an extremely difficult proposition to pull off and communicate, and part of that was [that] the wonderful way Bruce explains the loss of Clarence and Danny is immediately inspiring, and rather than mourning and a funeral it immediately becomes a celebration of their lives. That kind of catharsis is all part of the experience that we need to have or else we’re not doing our job. This turns out to be the real evidence of what this third generation of rock ’n’ roll is capable of. I think this tour is going to set that standard. The first generation invented it, the second generation brought it to an art form, and now what’s the third generation going to do with it? I think this tour, and this album, is a wonderful example as to what can be done.
In addition to the Fenway Park shows listed above, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will also play at Gillette Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50-$101. Call 800-745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. Little Steven’s Underground Garage airs Sundays from 10 p.m.-Mmidnight on WROR-105.7. “Lilyhammer” is available on Netflix.
.boston.com/ae/music/blog. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.