Peter Wolf and band still serving it up with relish

Longtime lead singer of the J. Geils Band opens for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour at DTE Energy Music Theatre

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Peter Wolf knows better than most that for veteran musicians, tomorrow is not promised. The longtime lead singer/songwriter of the J. Geils Band, a lively 71, is opening the show for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary show at DTE Energy Theatre on Tuesday.

Petty told Rolling Stone that this might be the last large-scale tour for his band.

“You never know. You never know,” Wolf mused in a zen sort of way, by phone from Boston.

He knows how quickly things can change. In April, guitarist Jay Geils died at his Massachusetts home. It was Geils who started the Boston-area blues band that, with the addition of the hyper-kinetic front man Wolf and keyboard player Seth Justman, morphed from traditional blues into the soulful, rocking powerhouse that was the J. Geils Band.

Geils hadn’t toured in years, declaring himself done with the road. A squabble with his former bandmates (who did want to carry on) over the band’s name was settled several years ago to the satisfaction of all.

“We had a lot of great years, it was sad,” Wolf said, of Geils’ death. Of the founding guitarist’s departure from the band, he remarked: “Things move on. A lot of bands went through it; the Stones, the Eagles, the Allman Brothers all went through it.”

In the meantime, he’s “back again at the old Pine Knob,” Wolf said, with relish.

Wolf’s bond with Petty goes back to the 1970s, when the up-and-coming Florida-born rocker opened many shows for the J. Geils Band, who were riding high after a string of frenetic rockers including “Looking for Love,” “Detroit Breakdown,” “Whammer Jammer” and a cover of the Contours’ hit “First I Look at the Purse.” Petty was not the only notable opening act, U2 also was a support act for the J. Geils Band.

Back then, by his own admission, Petty was a stiff front man. In a mid-1980s interview, he told columnist Lisa Robinson that for years, he never said a word or moved during his shows, prompting charges that he was “moody.”

A long string of dates opening for the J. Geils Band proved to be a good lesson in spirited, woofa goofa showmanship.

“I used to see Peter Wolf every night, and (saw) how much fun he had doing it and how naturally he did it,” Petty said. “He had a big influence on our live show. I wanted to have as much fun as that, and that was when we started to loosen up a bit.”

Wolf and Petty have remained friends over the years.

“I stayed in touch, and (Heartbreakers guitarist) Mike Campbell stayed in touch,” Wolf said. “I went to see them when I toured recently, and we started commiserating about old times. Then when the tour came about, they asked if I would like to do some dates with them, with my band. I was overjoyed, because with Tom, it’s always top shelf. He has a great crew who’s been with him for decades, and great sound, so it’s very much like touring with the Rolling Stones in the sense that it’s all about the music and everybody’s got a comfortable vibe.”

On the tour, which started in April, Petty and the Heartbreakers are including their crowd-pleasing hits such as “Free Fallin’” and “American Girl,” while tossing in some deep cuts from albums. Interestingly enough, the band will be joined by the Webb Sisters on backing vocals — the group that toured with Leonard Cohen in his last years.

For his part, Wolf has been rehearsing a diverse set with his solo band that covers much of his career, including several numbers from his 2016 solo album “A Cure for Loneliness.”

“We pulled out stuff from ‘Cure for Loneliness,’ an assortment of Geils stuff, some Stones stuff, maybe some other stuff,” Wolf said.

Flexibility isn’t always possible for this level of arena/amphitheater tour.

“A lot of times once you get a set, you lock it in,” Wolf agreed. “You’re playing to a different town every night, so you want to keep a certain musical consistency.”

Because of Wolf’s spiritual connection with Detroit, he has to talk about a few of his favorite vintage Motor City musicians, notably Fortune Records’ Nolan Strong, and Jackie Wilson, the R&B legend who recorded “Lonely Teardrops,” “Reet Petite” and later, “Higher and Higher.” Wolf inducted Wilson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

“Remember the Million Dollar Quartet?” Wolf said of the legendary Sun Records live sessions that featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins playing together in an impromptu jam.

“Well, Elvis is talking to Jerry Lee about this ‘colored guy’ who was singing ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ Elvis went to see him at a casino, and he said Jackie was singing the song so well, ‘I had to hide under the table. He was so good, I went there every night.’ ”

Wilson was as big a fan of Elvis, talking him up whenever he could, telling one interviewer that if he ran a radio station, he’d play Elvis records all the time.

As for Strong, he recorded “The Wind” and “Mind over Matter” for Fortune Records, and had the most airplay in and around Detroit in the ’50s and early ’60s. But covetous young East Coast musichounds like Wolf, who grew up in New York, quickly became hip to Strong. Wolf says he heard “The Wind” when it first came out in 1954, spun by the ultra hip Irving “Slim” Rose of Times Square Records, on his radio show.

He’s never forgotten Strong’s voice. “He was a big influence on Smokey Robinson with ‘The Wind,’ and with the Diablos, he was something else.”

On Tuesday, be prepared, as Wolf will be up to the usual high energy hijinks at DTE/Pine Knob.

“It’s always good to have that opportunity to play in front of people who are ‘music first,’ he said of Petty’s fans. He wasn’t sure how long his opening slot will be, but, “we’ll have enough time to do our whole shake, rattle and roll.”

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.

40th Anniversary Tour

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

with special guest Peter Wolf


DTE Energy Music Theatre


Doors open at 6 p.m.

Tickets: $39-150 available at Livenation.net, Palacenet.com, all Ticketmaster locations or charge by phone at (800) 745-3000.