Peter Wolf reminisces about Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, John Lee HookerBy MIKE COTE
New Hampshire Union Leader September 05. 2018 1:08PM
If you go...WHO: Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry
INFO: tupelohall.com or 437-5100
Peter Wolf doesn’t often stray far from home these days. As Boston’s resident rocker, he and his band, the Midnight Travelers, hit clubs and theaters around New England and open shows for other classic rock acts at arenas and stadiums.
So you might catch the singer performing in an intimate setting, like his upcoming show Friday at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, or warming up the Parrot Heads at Fenway Park for Jimmy Buffett as he did this summer. And then there are those nights where he shows up announced, singing “Centerfold” at a recent Billy Joel show at Fenway or joining Bruce Springsteen for “Shout” at TD Garden a couple of years back.
“It’s different playing the bigger venues. It has its positives that smaller venues don’t have, and negatives than what smaller venues have. It’s an interesting trade-off,” Wolf told NH Weekend in 2017. “If you’re an actor it’s like doing a big budget movie ... or doing a very intimate, more independent movie. They both are rewarding in their own ways.”
One of Wolf’s most recent treks outside the Northeast was a string of dates in 2017 opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the band’s 40th anniversary tour. It was to be Petty’s last — he died a couple of weeks after the tour ended.
Wolf and Petty knew each other for decades, starting back when Wolf fronted the J. Geils Band, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were among the bands that used to be their opening act.
“That was very sad day,” Wolf, 72, said Wednesday during a phone interview. “It was a real surprise because I knew Tom was having lots of problems — he needed to get to the stage by a golf cart — but once he got that guitar in his hands, he was amazing, and they were great shows. It was great to have the circle go around. Tom used to open up for Geils, and it was great opening up for the Heartbreakers. They were just amazing shows. I know he had a lot more to do.”
More than just about any artist of his generation, Wolf has faced up to this kind of loss before in his music, addressing the passage of time and the longing that comes with age. As a solo artist, he has dug much deeper than he did as the party crowd pleaser with the J. Geils Band. “A Lot of Good Ones Gone” resonates even more since Wolf recorded it for his 2002 album, “Sleepless,” ranked by Rolling Stone among the 500 best albums of all time.
“‘A Lot of Good Ones Gone” came when John Lee Hooker passed. It started then in my mind where so many of the musicians that inspired me, and that I became friends with, were all passing on ... that whole generation — Muddy (Waters), Otis Spann, Howlin’ Wolf,” he said. “And John sort of had this great resurgence towards the end of his life ... duets with Carlos Santana and Van Morrison. It was great to see him recognized in the way he should have always been.”
Wolf got to know Aretha Franklin, who died last month, back when the Queen of Soul recorded for Atlantic Records, the label that also signed the J. Geils Band in the late ’60s.
“With Aretha, it was very sad because she and I worked together. I knew her during the Atlantic (Records) days, and I met her through King Curtis, who used to run the Atlantic studios. And I got to sit in on a couple of sessions.”
Wolf was only a spectator back then, but he later would record a duet with Franklin and Santana on Franklin’s 1985 comeback album, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” on the song “Push.”
“I was, needless to say, very nervous because I didn’t know how it was going to work. She was really quite great to work with, very generous,” Wolf said. “Hearing her from the audience is a powerful experience, but standing 4 feet from her in the studio in an amazing experience.”
Since parting with the J. Geils Band, Wolf has recorded eight albums. While the group has reunited over the years for occasional shows, including opening for Bon Jovi at Gillette Stadium and Bob Seger at T.D. Garden, Wolf has otherwise continued on his solo path.
His most recent album is 2016’s “A Cure for Loneliness,” a 12-song set heavy on ballads and mid-tempo material. That’s been Wolf’s calling card since he veered away from mainstream rock and more toward adult singer-songwriter themes in the ’90s.
The singer whose band led off albums with rockers like “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party” on 1973’s “Bloodshot” or shouted out “Freeze Frame” to kick off the title cut of that 1981 album begins his records more quietly these days —“Growin’ Pain” on “Sleepless,” “Tragedy” on “Midnight Souvenirs,” “Rolling On” on “A Cure for Loneliness.”
“That’s not conscious. I guess that’s probably true,” Wolf said. “A different time, a different movie.”
Wolf still unleashes the Woofa Goofa in the studio and on stage. The bluesy rocker “How Do You Know” and “Mr. Mistake” captures that party vibe on his most recent record. In concert, he has updated his hipster rap intro for the 1974 hit “Musta Got Lost” to include cell phone technology. Wolf first immortalized that wrap in the J. Geils Band’s live version on the album “Blow Your Face Out.”
“As it was first originated, usually it’s spontaneous. I know there are some key points, but I’ve never sat down (to write it),” Wolf said. “I tried to many years ago, memorize it, because people want to hear it sort of as a story with a beginning, middle and end. I get to the beginning, but heh, heh, heh, I get lost in the middle all the time.”
Wolf has given a similar treatment to “Peace of Mind,” a mid-tempo track from “A Cure for Loneliness,” expanding on a spoken-word outro that he only hints at on the album. On stage, it becomes a show piece, as Wolf alludes to all the chaos in the world.
“The nature of the song is about the state one’s at in the world economically and just the unpredictability of things, and trying to keep a peace of mind,” said Wolf. “So it just seemed natural to expand it into some current issues that exist.”