Back in the late sixties and early seventies, Bruce Springsteen wrote a lot of great songs that only exist today on poorly recorded bootlegs. For whatever reason, Bruce decided to abandon these tunes when he moved towards the creation of the E Street Band. Thankfully an original member of the E Street Band has decided not only to save the older material but to bring them back to life.
Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez, the original drummer for the E Street Band was in several bands with Bruce Springsteen but one band in particular has always had a cult-like following - Steel Mill. The stories of the early shows are legendary with crowds of a few thousand people pouring into a college gymnasium or outdoors in a festival. They came to see a band that defied the times by playing original music; a band that always put on a live show that left you breathless; and a band that rocked. I mean, really rocked! Steel Mill was often compared to the bluesy rock and roll of bands like Led Zeppelin. The music is a long way from E Street, but the similarities are there as well. Through these songs you can start to see the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen emerge.
Steel Mill is comprised of veteran Jersey musician including Bernie Brausewetter, John Luraschi, Bill Kacerek, alongside Vini Lopez. Together they recreate the sounds and the vibe that Steel Mill brought to the scene several decades ago.
"We try to do it like the old band would have done it," said Vini Lopez. "When I listen to the bootlegs it's like yeah, I remember we used to do this part. So when we rehearse I'll say "There's another part we're gonna put in here." It's just a matter of staying where you are. Every song tells its own little story and goes its own way.
"The songs sound fresh because they are fresh. They still tell stories about now. I'm honored to do these songs and have fun with them."
The band recently released their first collection of Steel Mill songs with the CD entitled "The Dead Sea Chronicles". Featuring nine songs including classic Steel Mill songs like "Goin' Back To Georgia", "The Judge" (also known as "He's Guilty (Send That Boy To Jail)"), "The American Song", "Janey", and "The Wind And The Rain" - the brillant epic song featuring some of the best guitar licks ever written by Springsteen. In addition, the CD also contains "Asbury Park", a song Vini Lopez has played for many years. It's a hilarious account of the problems that city has had with redevelopment and lack of progress. Unfortunately, many of the lyrics in the song still ring true nearly a decade later.
"The Dead Sea Chronicles" is available from the band's website at www.steelmillretro.com. Lopez says that they have been in talks with a possible label or distributor but he's not rushing to make a deal with anyone.
"I'd go up with a label, but it's got to be right," he explained. "I'm not into taking a partner that's going to take all of my money - not that I'm going to make a lot of money..."
The market for Steel Mill songs may be bigger than Lopez thinks it is. A quick search of Google for "Bruce Springsteen" + "Steel Mill" comes up with over 10,000 different websites - some featuring loads of information on his former band. Ironically, many of these website owners weren't even born when Steel Mill was first creating the music! To fans of Bruce Springsteen who turn to bootlegs to hear his older music, the songs that Vini and Steel Mill are playing now will be a revelation. Instead of hearing them on muffled recordings, you'll hear them the way the songs were meant to be played with loud booming guitars, thunderous bass and drums, and swirling keyboards. One listen and you'll understand why the band's music has stood the test of time.
Vini says he got the idea to bring the band back a few years ago when he guested with Boccigalupe & the Bad Boys at a gig at BB Kings Club in New York City.
"They invited me to come up and sit in with them and jam," recalled Lopez. "Well I really didn't want to do Johnny B. Goode anymore. I wanted to do something I like, so I asked Tony (Boccigalupe) if he'd mind doing some of the Steel Mill Songs. So we learned a few and that's what we did."
Lopez estimates that Steel Mill had about 25 songs in their catalog and he's already planning out songs for a second CD. Not only does he have Springsteen's blessing for this project but he said that Bruce wants him to do some of the Bruce Springsteen Band stuff - one of the bands just before the E Street Band was created.
"Bruce told me about 25 years ago that it was ok if I wanted to do the Steel Mill stuff," said Lopez. "It just wasn't right then. Now I've got the chance to do it good. But I still wanted to make sure it was ok with him again before I started doing it."
Vini got the go-ahead during The Rising tour before one of the band shows at the Meadowlands. Later that night, Springsteen called him on stage to handle the drums on "Spirit In The Night".
The band hopes to recreate even more of the old Steel Mill vibe with a free outdoor concert or two in the spring and summer. "We'll find a place where we can do it and just invite some good bands and have a free show. Do it like the old days," said Lopez.
Just like they say, "everything old is new again"...
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.