In the Music Spotlight: Peter Wolf
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Since his early days with the J. Geils Band, Peter Wolf has been celebrated as an iconic rock and roll frontman. He’s equally at home with a broader range of styles. Various musical loves including country, blues, R&B and even Louis Jordan-styled jump swing get time on Wolf’s eighth solo album “A Cure for Loneliness.” He brings his new songs to Park West on May 21.
Wolf uses his jukebox of genres to subvert his own legacy. A staple of his show has been the bluegrass version of J. Geils Band’s hit “Love Stinks” that also appears on “A Cure for Loneliness.” It might take a moment to see past Duke Levine’s dazzling mandolin-picking, but fans will be singing along by the first chorus.
“I had the pleasure to meet Bill Monroe a couple of times, and I always had a fascination for bluegrass,” says Wolf. “The band was putting together a bluegrass set. We had a bottle of Kentucky’s finest, and I just slipped into ‘Love Stinks.’ We had a big laugh about it. Then, I did it impromptu on stage and it stuck. The audience loved it.”
In addition to writing his original songs, Wolf has been a canny curator of hidden treasures. The album reshapes a few dusty favorites. Wolf emerges in his Woofa Goofa persona for the double-edged cheating song “It Was Always So Easy (To Find An Unhappy Woman),” which was a minor hit in 1974 for country singer Moe Bandy.
“Sometimes we’d be sitting around with guitars, and I’d sing that song,” says Wolf. “Nobody seemed to know it. It’s like what J. Geils Band did with ‘First I Look at the Purse’ or ‘Ain’t Nothing But a House Party.’ People had forgotten those songs. It’s nice to be able to give a song its due, not unlike what the Stones did with ‘It’s All Over Now’ or ‘Time is on My Side.’”
Wolf’s encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and charisma as a raconteur have led to friendship and collaboration with musical heroes no less than Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones. Wolf recorded “It’s Too Late for Me” for his 2010 album “Midnight Souvenirs” with country music legend Merle Haggard, who passed away in April.
“Watching him get into the song, bringing it alive in a way that only Merle could, was not unlike seeing someone like Marlon Brando walk onto the stage of ‘[A] Streetcar [Named Desire]’” says Wolf. “All of a sudden, this character is created, and you never realized the depth that it could go.”
The misty-eyed “Fun For a While” was previewed in Chicago during Wolf’s 2014 run, describing fond remembrances of good trouble during youthful days. It could be about Wolf’s childhood in the Bronx, or the breakneck pace of world-conquering days with the J. Geils Band. “Both have that bittersweet aspect,” says Wolf, now 70, with a warm laugh. “It’s about growing up and the wild times. Eventually, you move on. You think back with a smile, but you’re also glad that you escaped.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.