A Few Minutes With… Peter Wolf
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Four bands saw this music journalist through the dark nights of the disco-dominated 1970s pop music scene: the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Van Halen and the J. Geils Band.
The first three groups still exist but haven’t produced new music up to their earlier standards. The fourth doesn’t exist under the Geils name, but their lead singer, Peter Wolf, is writing music that is more real and heartfelt than he was between 1969 and ’81 when he left the band. He plays with his current band the Midnight Travelers at The Egg in Albany on Saturday night for the third time in three years.
The first three groups still play arenas, essentially presenting an oldies greatest hits show. Wolf plays venues one twentieth the size, performing new music just as heady, raw and dynamic as he did with Geils but with the added wisdom of lyrics that stand tall next to those of other grizzled veterans, some of whom fall generally under the label of Americana like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver and, yes, Bob Dylan.
Why, you may ask, is Wolf playing to much smaller audiences if he’s better than his contemporaries?
One reason is simple brand name recognition. The Stones, Aerosmith and Van Halen still have the names they went by when they were hit-makers. But J. Geils was the guitarist in his namesake band, and obviously, Wolf can’t perform under that name.
Secondly, the mass American audience loves a band with a flamboyant lead guitarist. All four of these bands have – or in Wolf’s case, had – great lead guitarists. And that’s not to disparage the public’s taste for their love of the relationships between those lead guitarists and vocalists. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen and J. Geils with Peter Wolf all are pure magic together on stage. And all four of these musical marriages have at one time or another tried to go it alone, and in each their solo efforts have not equaled the sum of their parts, at least in the eyes of the adoring fans.
Wolf is the only one of the four who has succeeded creatively on his own to a degree that matches – and in some cases exceeds – the quality of his work with his original band. My favorite guitar run from the original J. Geils Band is the stuttering kickoff to the John Lee Hooker blues standard “Serves You Right to Suffer.” J. Geils himself told me years after the group’s break-up that he always hated performing that number. But Peter Wolf did it with his current band the last time they played Albany.
The Geils band’s biggest successes in terms of numbers of records sold were “Freeze-Frame” and “Centerfold” which went to number 4 and 1 respectively on the charts. Both reflect a change in direction pushed by keyboardist Seth Justman which led to Wolf’s leaving the band after their 1981 tour with the Stones. Wolf’s shining hours with the band are represented in earlier blues boogie tour-de-forces that energized Chicago blues into a speedball delivery in songs like “Looking for Love,” “Give It to Me,” “Love Stinks” and “Detroit Breakdown.” Those numbers gave the band a dynamic as much in keeping with Detroit rockers like the MC5, Bob Seger and the Stooges as with their blues roots, even though the Geils band hailed from Boston.
Wolf was gracious enough to chat with Nippertown in advance of his Saturday night concert at The Egg:
Q: I understand you’re working on a live album. How’s that going?
A: Yeah, we’ve been slowly doing new songs for the live album and some other tunes. It’s coming along, and then we started to do some studio stuff, and it might even be a combination because we’ve been recording for the last six months or so, and we’ve got some mixed up. There’s some backstage things we did. So it’s coming together, slowly, but its coming together. I’d rather it be right than rush it.
Q: When you say backstage stuff, what do you mean about that? What would you put on an album that is backstage?
A: You know, some acoustic things where we just work it up and get ready to hit the stage sometimes. You know, we have the upright bass and a couple of acoustic guitars, and the fellow that fronts the house for us is also an engineer, so we record some of those things, too. So it’s on the road. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing some new material. We always kind of figure out the set. We have so much material to dwell on from the solo periods. We’ve been changing it up somewhat, but we have been adding some new things during the shows.
Q: You did a Boston Strong concert a few months ago with J. Geils Band. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was about?
A: Well, the promoters called up. Needless to say, it was a shocking, horrific event, and I think Donny Walberg got together with the Live Nation people, and they started just making calls around to see if people were available, and the Geils Band, we weren’t on the road or anything, but we just pulled together and wanted to be part of it. It was more a community thing.
It wasn’t supposed to be recorded or on TV at least in the beginning, so I liked the idea that it was just going to be a concert for people in Boston for Boston bands and just a one-night thing, and then of course what they always try to do is they end up wanting to broadcast it. A) it was a good cause, and B) I liked the idea that it was a community thing with a lot of the Boston-based bands.
Q: What does it take to keep your own band together these days, ’cause you’ve played with just about everybody under the sun. I wouldn’t expect you’re an easy guy to please. How do you maintain a band for that long?
A: Why would you think I’m not an easy guy to please? Maybe I’m a real easy guy to please.
Q: Oh, I don’t know. It’s just that you’ve played with so many iconic people. I’ve never heard you when you were not just wonderful. I would just assume that people would have to be on their toes to play with you.
A: Well, Don, I tend to connect with people that I have a sort of collaborative feel with and when you know somebody… For instance I’ve known someone like Bruce Springsteen since before he even recorded, and things like that. So you build up a friendship. We both have a lot in common musically, whether it’s the same band initially, musicians who care about their work and their craft and the music itself. For instance, not to long ago, we went to see the Americanarama with Bob Dylan and Wilco and My Morning Jacket. And I guess Bob found out I was in the audience and asked me to join them all for a song and things like that. So I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. I would just say we all share the same passion.
Q: I was in Boston for the Stones concert in June, the Wednesday night one, and I was with Bill Nowlin from Rounder Records, and he said, “Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Wolf shows up,” so I was kinda hoping you were gonna be there.
A: Well, I was there, and there were plans to meet doing something for the second night, and they had some technical problems, and I think they got concerned that they had spent so much time working out the technical problems that we didn’t really have time for a sound check, so it kinda got waylaid, but they’re not gone yet. You never can tell.
Q: Jerry Wexler signed you to Atlantic Records back in ’71 was it?
A: No, it was ’69.
Q: At first you went in, and they said you weren’t ready or something, and you came back after you’d woodshedded some more. What was that all about?
A: Well, we went off to Detroit and did some work, and we weren’t too happy with it. It was in the era where Jerry (Wexler) had signed us and – uh – they forgot about us. They forgot we were on the label. So one day I got a phone call saying, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys?” I said, “Well, Mr.Wexler, I’m glad you called. We’re just working on some stuff.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you come down to New York, and let’s hear what you got.” So, it was Jerry Wexler, Dr. John, Don Covay, King Curtis, and King Curtis turned to Jerry and said, “Man, these cats are cookin’, you know. Get ’em in the studio.” So, that’s how the first album got started.
Q: You had already opened up for everybody that was in the game back at that point, right?
A: Well, I was in a band called the Hallucinations, and it was all composed of art students, and this was before I put together the J. Geils Band, and so during that period at the Tea Party (an iconic Boston rock club in the mid-’60s) we had played with a whole array of people, everybody from the Velvet Underground to Roland Kirk, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and the crew that did “Fire,” the Crazy World of Arthur Brown – a lot of the English bands that came through. So we were the house band, and then when I put together the J. Geils configuration, we continued to be the house band for people like Traffic and Fleetwood Mac and things like that.
Q: You didn’t actually back them up. What would you do, open the set?
A: Well, the Hallucinations backed up John Lee Hooker, and we worked a lot with Muddy, but by the time the Geils band got together, we would just do opening act stuff a lot, and sometimes headline, but most of the time it was opening up for people like Muddy or Howlin’ Wolf, things like that.
Q: You have told stories on stage, and you’ve given me an anecdote about hanging out with Hooker. I wondered if you have any more anecdotes you’d like to share.
A: Well, John Lee was such a very sweet man, and when you look at it, he was the opposite, the antithesis of what you’d think he’d be like. He was a very sweet guy, and very hospitable and a very charming guy. He loved to have ladies around him because he enjoyed their company. I’m not talking about anything lewd. He enjoyed going into town, and they would bring food over to him backstage, and we would go out a lot to restaurants.
I remember a great lunch that I got together for John Lee and Van Morrison, and both have a distinctive way of talking, and it was very hard to understand John Lee and twice as hard to understand Van Morrison. He and Van seemed to be communicating just great, but I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. But John Lee adored Van as much as Van adored John Lee, and that’s pretty evident if you go on YouTube, and you can see some of the things they did together. You can tell that there was great respect between the two of them, but that’s what the solo stuff is about when you talk about the Stones, and I did “Sleepless,” and had Mick sing and Keith sing.
I tried to do stuff that complimented the artist, and it’s a great thrill for me because I’m a fan just like everybody else is, so working with someone like Merle Haggard or Shelby Lynne or even Neko Case (on the Peter Wolf 2010 album Midnight Survivors), it’s a great thrill for me to have these artists working on something with me. So we learn something by the way they approach a song, and somebody like Merle is certainly a dream come true, and that’s what these shows are about.
The band the Midnight Travelers I work with, they’re all such seasoned musicians and such accomplished players, but I’m just a fan. I really just enjoy hearing what’s going on behind me and sometimes I wish I could just sit down in a chair and watch them, which I do at times. And The Egg is such an interesting venue that’s been very supportive, so we’re really looking forward to get back.