Peter Wolf is both musician and a roots music historian
It may seem counterintuitive, but not all musicians are music buffs.
Peter Wolf is. A short interview will turn into a long one, because he’ll go off on an interesting tangent about a coveted record, a great song or an artist he wants you to know. He is the ultimate collector and music buff, and that extends to books written about musicians. Wolf and Bob Dylan have a sort of rock star lending library, swapping music biographies when they see each other.
Wolf’s new-ish record, “A Cure for Loneliness” (Concord), out in April, shows him holding a vintage 45 rpm record player. “That’s a Woofa Goofa iPod for the ages,” Wolf joked, referencing one of his nicknames in a recent phone conversation. “Therein lies my cure for happiness and cure for loneliness.”
The indefatigable J. Geils Band frontman when they tour (which is infrequent), Wolf plies his own much rootsier solo career when they don’t. In April, with a new album to promote — his first since 2010 — he sold out two solo shows at The Ark in Ann Arbor.
Now he’ll return with his band, the Midnight Travelers, to open the June 24 show for Steve Miller at the DTE Energy Music Theater.
“It’s a special request,” Wolf said of the Miller gig. He’ll no doubt have a few conversations about music biographies with Miller, who also has a vast library of such books.
“It won’t be quite as intimate a gig as The Ark, of course,” Wolf said. But it’s a big venue to expose his new songs, and his many loyalist fans, a number of whom are J. Geils completists, will be there.
It can be tricky, pivoting from the soul-drenched rock-roots of the J. Geils Band, a Detroit favorite since the early ’70s, to a solo persona that’s even more infused with the R&B and country he loves.
“It’s very strange coming from a band and trying to create a meaningful solo career,” Wolf mused. “It can be done, but it’s, surprisingly, very rare that it happens successfully. I remember when the Geils Band first played the Fillmore East, and (famed promoter) Bill Graham came rushing into the dressing room, all excited. He threw his arms around me and said ‘Jay, you’re fantastic!’ There’s still a lot of people who say ‘Hey Jay!’ when they see me.
“A lot of people are aware of the solo stuff, but a lot of your hardcore Geils fan are just into Geils, they haven’t sought it out or are aware of it.”
And yet, surely even the most focused Geils fans will be intrigued to hear Wolf’s bluegrass version of the J. Geils Band classic, “LoveStinks,” on his new album. That came out of a country-tinged jam one day between Wolf and his bandmates.
He is, not surprisingly, brilliant at choosing old songs to cover. For the new album, he takes on Moe Bandy’s country song, “It Was Always so Easy (To Find an Unhappy Woman),” and “Tragedy,” a haunting early rock ‘n’ roll classic by Thomas Wayne and the DeLons.
“The Moe Bandy song, so many people don’t know it,” Wolf said. “It’s like, when the Geils Band did (The Contours’) ‘First I Look at the Purse,’ it turned those people on to those songs. That’s one of the reasons I always like to include covers, I try to give it my own little spin.”
“Tragedy,” from 1959, has many of the elements that draw Wolf. “It’s one of those really interesting songs,” he said. “I was surprised that people I respect didn’t know that song.”
“The Fleetwoods’ version (of ‘Tragedy’) came second,” Wolf said. “Each version had a unique kind of haunting quality. There’s even a version by Paul McCartney, that wasn’t released. People get trapped or absorbed by the beauty of the song.”
It helps that Wolf’s croon on the song is shadowed beautifully by his female backing vocalists. Certain female singers bring that out in him, he agrees. “Shelby Lynne does that. Certain people can take this garbage can voice of mine and make it sound good.”
As always, the fun is infectious, with songs like “Mr. Mistake” — who else can rhyme with the phrase “cut rate muscatel?” But the overall tone of his new album is wistful, with a twang. Wolf is at a stage of life where many of his peers are disappearing.
He wanted to record a song he co-wrote with Don Covay, “It’s Raining,” with Bobby Womack, but literally days from the recording session Womack died, unexpectedly. Wolf forged ahead and recorded the song on his own, for “A Cure for Loneliness.”
This year has been a particularly hard on his generation of rockers, although Wolf himself appears to be an ageless, impish 70. What’s a fan, much less a friend of these folks to do?
“Keep on keeping on, and treasure those who are still amongst us,” Wolf said.
Susan Whitall is a longtime music writer, author and contributor to The Detroit News.
Steve Miller Band
with very special guests, Peter Wolf and the
7:30 p.m. June 24
DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston.
Tickets: $125, $84.95, $59.95 and $29.95 pavilion, $20 lawn.
Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com, the Palace and DTE Energy Music Theatre box offices, or by calling (248) 377-0100.