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Peter Wolf, The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY: Strung out on rock & roll May 29, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music, Peter Wolf.
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I first saw Peter Wolf’s solo act sometime around 1996, when the Long Line album was released.  Peter did a free afternoon show at South Street Seaport with a great bassist, the exceptional Johnny A on guitar, and a couple of the Uptown Horns if I remember correctly.  I’d seen Peter over a dozen times before that day, as the manic singer in the J. Geils Band who seemed to have learned his dance moves from the Temptations stage show and the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. The J. Geils Band were one of the best things about the 1970s; Peter’s hyperkinetic performances crystallized their blues/R&B-based music and earned him a reputation as one of rock’s great front men.

The band eventually fell apart in the 1980s. After not seeing Peter for nearly 15 years, I was startled by his appearance at the Seaport gig; out in the sunlight he was gaunt and pale, with stringy hair and skinny as a rail, but he still had the moves and the voice. The phrase “strung out on rock & roll” popped into my mind; I think that’s always been the essence of the man and the reason why his shows are so compelling. He’s another 15 years older now, and still works the stage with consummate craft; he integrates stretches perched on a stool, telling tales of his years in the business, into a set so skilfully, you scarcely notice that he’s regrouping for another frantic boogaloo as he talks.

Friday night, he brought the show to an enthusiastic crowd of a couple hundred stay-at-home Memoriial Day Weekenders in Brooklyn. The gig was at The Bell House, a nice wood-raftered room with a couple of spiffy chandeliers in a converted warehouse at the edge of Park Slope near the Gowanus Canal. Peter and his band gave us two mesmerizing hours that brought the spirits of the legenday bluesmen, 1950s rock & roll & 1960s soul right into the present.

Some performers of Peter’s vintage choose to tap the vitality of younger musicians to energize their stage act. Peter has gathered a bunch of guys who, in addition to being versatile, seem to be pretty much of his own generation. The two guitarists are as adept on acoustics, mandolin, and steel guitar as they are on Strats and SGs. The bassist switches between electric and standup. The keyboardist & drummer, who might have been a bit younger than the rest, are highly attuned to Peter’s songs; they kept the energy and textures right where they should be.

Peter sprinkled seven songs from his new album, Midnight Souvenirs, among a generous selection of songs from the J. Geils era and his seven solo albums. He regaled us with tales of growing up in the Bronx, made us laugh with stories of his meetings with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as a still-shy teenager (so he claimed; it’s hard to imagine that this exuberant man ever was shy). He name-checked songwriters from Don & Phil Everly to Will Jennings to Willy DeVille. I don’t want to sound pompous about this, but he’s the walking embodiment of nearly a century of what’s best about American popular music, to my ears. Don’t miss a chance to see him.

The opening act was Kenny White, a skilled songwriter / keyboardist / guitarist who has worked closely with Peter on his last several albums and in putting Peter’s bands together. Toward the end of his set, Peter made sure that everybody felt his appreciation for Kenny’s role in this phase of his career.

Peter and the band took the stage around 9:30. The setlist:

Growing Pain
Long Line
Long Way Back Again
Always Asking For You
I Don’t Wanna Know
Serves You Right To Suffer
Waitin’ On The Moon
Cry One More Time
Green Fields Of Summer
Wastin’ Time
The Night Time Is The Right Time
Riverside Drive
Love Stinks
Lookin’ For A Love
All I Need To See Is You

encore set:

Nothing But The Wheel
Then It Leaves Us All Behind
Must Have Got Lost
It’s Too Late For Me
When The Night Comes Down
Start All Over Again
FIrst I Look At The Purse

In the encore set, it felt like they were going to close the show with Must Have Got Lost, but Peter had some hurried consultations with the stage manager and the band, and they kept it going for four more tunes.

I’ll end this review with an observation of what a perfect song they chose to close the show: a cover of the 1965 Contours hit that became a highlight of J. Geils Band shows in their earliest days. If you don’t have it, get a copy of their first live album, Full House, and crank it. Timeless. I was waiting all night for that song, as I suspect a lot of the audience was; the band delivered it like a speeding freight train at just the right time. You knew that Peter had put everything he had left into the song when it was over. That’s how a star ends a show.