Peter Wolf and the Company He Keeps
by John Milward
I attended a recent Peter Wolf concert in Albany, but this is not a concert review. I did plenty of those during decades of work as a full-time rock critic, years that left me hopelessly spoiled with free records and primo tickets; those days are over, and now I choose my shots, and was happy to plunk down $35 to see an old favorite at the intimate (and not quite sold-out) Swyer Theatre. Still, I owe you a bit of critical info: Wolf is touring behind his terrific new album, Midnight Souvenirs, and his top-notch backing quintet features players from the sessions, including guitarist Duke Levine and bassist Marty Ballou. Besides the cream of the new album and 2002‘s Sleepless, the set list also included a handful of nuggets from his years with the J. Geils Band and a maraca-shaking take on the Strangeloves’ garage-rock stomper “Night Time.”
But what I really want to tell you about is the company Peter Wolf keeps. Midnight Souvenirs features duets with Shelby Lynne (she refused to duet to a tape, and insisted that she and Wolf record together after tall glasses of bourbon), Neko Case (Wolf got her help after treating the hungry singer to dinner in Boston), and Merle Haggard (whom Wolf simply described as a “top shelf” artist). Sleepless contained collaborations with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Steve Earle, and both albums boast string work from the estimable Larry Campbell (Levon Helm’s MVP).
Wolf is as much a fan as an artist, and his between song patter was filled with nods to his musical heroes. Introducing one tune, he cited the influence of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, whom the barely-teenaged Wolf had the opportunity to meet (“He seemed more interested in something else,” chuckled the 64-year-old singer). Reminiscing about the studio he and friends shared during his early-60s stint at an artsy high school in Harlem, he noted that his neighbors in the building included pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and the abstract expessionist painter Mark Rothko. Walking through nearby Riverside Park, he’d see Sonny Rollins playing saxophone on a park bench (“running scale after scale”). During frequent visits to the Apollo Theater, he saw most everybody who mattered, including James Brown, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Jackie Wilson.
Wolf always tags a bit of Wilson’s “You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher)” onto the end of “Cry One More Time,” a tune from the second Geils album, The Morning After. He introduced that song by mentioning that he’d met Gram Parsons during “the three or four days” Parsons was at Harvard. He then thanked Emmylou Harris and Barry Tashian, an Emmylou associate who’d played in the Boston rock band the Remains (they were the opening act on the Beatles last U.S. tour) for introducing the song to Parsons, who included it on his first solo album, G.P. Not coincidentally, Parsons made it country, while the Geils take was rhythm & blues.
Introducing John Lee Hooker’s “Serve You Right To Suffer,” Wolf gave a shout out to Chicago bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who used to hang out at his Cambridge apartment when appearing at the Boston Tea Party. Wolf solicited other Chicago favorites from his band, who called out such names as Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Magic Sam, and Little Walter. But when someone in the audience added “Little Richard,” Wolf, who’s a professor at the College of Musical Knowledge, shook his head ‘no,’ noting that Richard had grown up in Georgia.
After “Serve You Right To Suffer,” Wolf mentioned that at 17-years-old, he’d cajoled his way into an afternoon meeting with Hooker at his hotel. He arrived to find the bluesman lying on his bed in boxer shorts and a wife-beater T-shirt. Hooker’s open guitar case lay on ther other bed. Taking a seat, Wolf noticed that the TV was tuned to a re-run of a popular TV show. “That Lassie’s one smart motherfucking dog,” said Hooker.
Wolf isn’t name dropping. Indeed, author Peter Guralnick has encouraged Wolf to write a book about his Zelig-like life in music, but the singer demurs, saying he’s not the story. Rather, he’s a working musician who’s had the good taste and fabulous fortune to rub elbows with the giants. In preparation for the Wolf show, I pulled out my J. Geils Band albums, including 1972‘s Full House, the live-concert barn-burner that shows why they were just about the best live act of the 1970s. My memories of the Geils Band are from Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, but the cover of my Full House is adorned with a backstage pass from New Jersey’s Capitol Theater. I can’t remember a thing about March 26, 1975, but I bet Peter Wolf has a story.