Remember the J. Geils Band? In 1981, the rhythm and blues group went pop with the monster anthem “Centerfold”. And as if the mere idea of that homeroom angel wasn’t enough, they also gave us that splendid video. You know, the one with a dozen high school girls prancing around the classroom in negligees, playing patty-cake and fawning for Peter Wolf, the band’s lead singer who struts between the school desks ala Michael Jackson in the “Beat It” coffee shop. I still dream of that video. Only Van Halen brought more delight to the classroom (thank you David Lee Roth, and “Miss Chemistry” wherever you are). Well, hard as it may be, it’s time to stop whistling that infectious outro. (If you have digital cable, turn to the VH1 Classic channel another time.) A decade later, Peter Wolf has released Sleepless, his sixth solo album, which shows just how far he has matured as a music artist. You don’t want to miss this one. Comfortably taking pages from Dylan’s recent tour de force Love and Theft, the Rolling Stones’ canon circa ’68-71 and those timeless Stax singles, Wolf delivers a masterful fusion of blues, country and soul.
Those references are not coincidental: Wolf borrows Larry Campbell (guitar) and Tony Garnier (double bass) from Dylan’s latest band; old friends Jagger and Richards make separate guest appearances; and two tracks feature the well-traveled brass section, Uptown Horns. Even Steve Earle shows up for the festivities. As for the material, Wolf seamlessly marries new tunes co-written with the prolific Will Jennings (who has brought us everything from the sublime “Tears in Heaven” with Eric Clapton to the unforgettable, if nauseating, theme to the film Titanic) with classics by Otis Rush and Sonny Boy Williamson. The result is one of the best releases of 2002.
The first track sets the tone, opening with a clean stratocaster whispering a subtle tremolo lick through the warm tubes of a classic Fender amp. Enter soft-brushed percussion. A muted mandolin and quietly picked acoustic guitar follow, along with a rolling double bass. Somewhere on a porch bench, T-Bone Burnett is smiling. The sound is open, natural and easy. Wolf begins: “Sometimes I don’t know / What it is I’m looking for”. With his comfortable voice, warm and mellowed with age, we are drawn into Wolf’s sleepless journey. It’s going to be a fun ride.
On the second track, a rollicking country blues, Jagger sings backup to Wolf, who, in turn, delivers his best Keith Richards vocal. The results are remarkable, and wind us through the acoustic back roads of Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. After the soft soulful lament “A Lot of Good Ones Gone” Wolf’s band launches into the Stax classic “Never Like This Before”. The performance on this track is so good that it’s hard not to brood over Neil Young’s own 2002 tribute to the Stax legacy, Are You Passionate. Although backed by the original Stax house band, Booker T and the MG’s, Neil sauntered through an uneven batch of new songs loosely constructed with recycled bass lines and lazy three chord vamps. The album had its moments, and was certainly heartfelt, but overall, Neil’s frail falsetto vocals and hallmark fuzz-toned Les Paul lead guitar didn’t quite fit. With a completely different approach, Wolf faithfully summons the spirit of William Bell with a full sound, open and balanced with subtle nuances. Shimmering horns rise from telecaster blues guitars; Wolf calls out with spontaneous enthusiasm; gospel women respond with joyous soul; the biting tone of a single coil carves out a guitar solo; and all along, the drums push the pace. Uplifting energy, and flawless execution.
But Sleepless really hits its stride with the raw blues of Otis Rush’s “Homework”, where we find Wolf on the corner of Heartattack and Vine, delivering his best Tom Waits growl: “Oh baby, I might be your fool / Wastin’ my time about going to school / The way you love me / Love me so / I can’t do my homework anymore”. The airy production and stellar musicianship remind me of John Hammond’s 2001 album Wicked Grin, where Hammond and his small band stomp through stunning renditions of 13 Tom Waits songs (the album was actually produced by Waits himself, who also makes a few guest appearances on piano and guitar). Hammond’s band dug deep to reach the core of those tunes, lifting each track from the earth with shuffling rhythms and rich overtones. (Hammond took a similar approach on Spirit of the Century, the magnificent genre defying 2001 album by gospel elder statesmen the Blind Boys of Alabama, which perhaps not coincidentally also featured a Waits tune.) Wolf’s tone is a bit softer, but no less effective. Starting with the simple tin groove of a resonator guitar, this band digs deep, and swings.
Wolf sweetens the pot with the slow organ-driven “Five O’Clock Angel”, a nod to Tennessee Williams, who coined the title phrase for his own first drink of the day. (Wolf apparently befriended Williams towards the end of his days.) An ode to Williams’ steadfast devotion to his writing through well-documented depressions and breakdowns, Wolf and Will Jennings turn in a gem. Haunted by a past and craving inspiration, Wolf calls to his angel: “The day is goes on / And I’m just drifting on / Same old song / Comes to haunt me / Till she comes”. As with every other track, Wolf nails the delivery. Just beautiful.
After the Sam Cooke-driven “Hey Jordan”, Wolf delivers a swinging cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Too Close Together”, guest starring Keith Richards on guitar and backup vocals. Listen for Richard’s stunning Chuck Berry solo (a true highlight), and check out Wolf’s hysterical liner notes account of his studio experience with Richards. On the next country honky-tonk ballad, “Some Things You Don’t Want To Know”, Steve Earle lends his voice, and influence, which is followed by the Drifters-inflected “Oh Marianne”.
Concluding the album with the title track, Wolf is still restless. Casting off “memories of stolen years”, he pleads, “If you want to see my song and dance / You’ve got to give me one more chance”. Heed his call. Give this disc a few a few spins. With each listen, you’ll hear it unfold itself, together with the very roots of rock, country and soul.