Photos by Lou Montesano
Before Peter Wolf became the J. Geils Band’s jive-talking front man, he was a jive-talking radio disc jockey in Boston. In 1968, a year after hooking up with guitarist John Geils and company, Wolf became just the second DJ at the legendary WBCN-FM, one of the country’s earliest “underground” radio stations. During the course of that relatively brief gig, he worked up a hipster on-air personality culled from Alan Freed and the other rock and roll radio hosts he idolized growing up in the Belmont section of the Bronx. Wolf became “Woofa Goofa,” delivering a lightning-fast patois in a smart, cool baritone that was — and still is — irresistible. The records he played were drawn from his love for soul, R&B and the deep blues of John Lee Hooker. This was the music that would bring the J. Geils Band to national attention and sustain them until their later pop hits helped them arrive at the big-time.
On the first of three sold-out nights at New York’s City Winery, Woofa Goofa was back in rock-star glory, moving and grooving in his leopard-print jacket, wrap-around shades and shaggy-dog hair. Touring with his crack band, the Midnight Travelers, in support of his new album, A Cure For Loneliness, Wolf blended his more recent originals with R&B and blues standards originally covered by the Geils Band, songs such as Bobby Womack’s “Looking For A Love,” Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Do My Homework” and Hooker’s “It Serves You Right To Suffer.”
Built on, but not limited to, a foundation of rock and soul, rhythm and blues, the originals Wolf has written since with such collaborators as Don Covay and Michael Jonzun are more nuanced than the hard-driving Geils sound. As his songwriting has evolved, Wolf has embraced a wider range of styles, incorporating country and western and even bluegrass into his musical bag of tricks. From Sleepless, his outstanding 2002 solo album, there was “Nothing But The Wheel,” a tune he recorded with Mick Jagger. From 2010’s Midnight Souvenirs he pulled “I Don’t Wanna Know” and the lovely “It’s Too Late For Me,” which was co-written with Will Jennings and recorded with the late, great Merle Haggard. Samples from A Cure For Loneliness, his eighth solo release since 1984, confirm that Wolf remains on course. He opened with “Wastin’ Time,” featured as a live track on the new album, and sent out the tender “Peace Of Mind” as a prayer for help “in our troubled times.”
Wolf’s extremely nimble band — led by Duke Levine on guitar and mandolin, with Kenny White on keys, Kevin Barry on guitar and pedal steel, Marty “Dr. Jazz” Ballou on bass and Tom Arey on drums — played the music of Wolf’s many disparate styles with an easy mastery. The classics had the audience dancing and the new songs clicked, but the Travelers truly showed their chops on the monster J. Geils hit, “Love Stinks,” reworking it as a tune Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys might have covered.
And through it all, there was the irrepressible Peter Wolf, owning the stage with Jagger-esque energy, superb showmanship and wry wit. Long may Woofa goofa.