Photo credit: Michael Indresano
The Woofuh-Goofuh Reportedly Retains All of His Own Teeth, Despite the Fact That They Turned Green in 1975
Musical artists often spend their entire careers attempting to replicate the urgency, the uniqueness, or, simply put, the “magic” they created on a debut record, unable to live up to standards created by their own work in the infancy of their careers. Examples of initial excellence might include Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. More often artists hone their craft on their first two or three albums, and then, if they are fortunate enough, complete a landmark album at that point. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run was his third album (not that his first two efforts were lackluster), while the Replacements graced the world with Let It Be on their fourth try. But how often does an artist hit his or her stride after over 30 years of making music? While I’m fairly certain that it does not occur often, it is happening with Peter Wolf, as he finds himself peaking artistically at age 56.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Wolf migrated north in his early 20s to study painting at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. However, after forming a blues/R&B band called the Hallucinations, he realized that perhaps music was his passion instead of the canvas. In 1967, Wolf’s better-known outfit, the J. Geils Band, was born. They began as a hard-driving blues band and evolved into unlikely MTV pop stars when “Centerfold” became a mega-hit, but they were always best known for their electric live performances, which could turn an arena like the old Boston Garden or Detroit’s Cobo Hall into an intimate “house party”, thanks largely to Wolf’s onstage energy and showmanship.
In the years following the breakup of the J. Geils Band, Wolf’s solo career has spanned a mish-mash of styles, from the uptown funk of his 1985 debut, Lights Out, to the more rock-oriented Come As You Are (where he once again wowed MTV audiences with the clever video for the title track), to the inconsequential Up to No Good. 1996 saw the release of Long Line, and at that point, it became apparent that Wolf’s sound was evolving. Gone was the late-night party vibe of Wolf’s earlier work, and in its place was an earnestness seldom shown before, hinting at the universal theme of a man consumed with the passing of time. The follow-up, the masterful Fool’s Parade, is possibly the best work of Wolf’s entire career, but ironically, saw no promotion from his then-label, Mercury Records. Fortunately, with Sleepless (Artemis Records), he picks up where Parade left off, returning with a more eclectic batch of songs, intimating that while Wolf may still be awake long after the sun has set for the day, he is up to more than “no good”. More importantly, the new campaign has Wolf saddling up and touring solo for the first time in recent memory, including this hometown date in the intimate confines of the sold-out Paradise.
For this show, Wolf and his watertight band, the “legendary” Sleepwalkers (leave it to the humble Wolf to bestow this status upon his band on their first tour together), focused their efforts on material from his last three solo albums. The ensemble opened with the new “Growin’ Pain”, an instant classic that seamlessly blends folk, soul, and rock, then segued into the similarly pleasing “Long Way Back Again”. “Long Line” was given a more appropriate hard-hitting live treatment, while the bouncy guitars of “Nothing But the Wheel” worked just fine without Mick Jagger’s forlorn croon lending its support. The band continued to dip their toes into a cornucopia of styles, from the lazy country of “Some Things You Don’t Want to Know” to the smooth and soulful sounds of “Never Like This Before”.
Despite the strength of Wolf’s latest solo efforts, reaching back into the vast catalog of J. Geils Band favorites proved to be too irresistible. The first selection, offered roughly midway through the two-hour show, was the star of the latest Heineken commercial, a heavy-on-the-reggae rendition of “Give It to Me”, which saw Wolf exercise his rock star muscle by leaping into the receptive crowd. Other choice offerings included the R&B pop of “Musta Got Lost”, the ‘80s AOR bubblegum of “Love Stinks”, and the sob-in-your-beer anthem, “Cry One More Time”.
In the liner notes of Sleepless, Wolf makes reference to the notion that “changes and surprises are the results of good collaborations,” and that notion certainly holds true in his latest manifestation—be it in his songwriting collaborators, his in-studio guests (which this time around included Steve Earle and Keith Richards), or his onstage accomplices. And while Wolf may be playing smaller venues than in the heyday of the J. Geils Band, on this evening he proved that he is still a charismatic, larger-than-life showman no matter what size stage he roams.