From Full House to Full Career, the J. Geils Frontman Reflects on Matters Then and Now
By Peter F. Stevens
It’s never been a secret that the J. Geils Band puts on legendary live shows that for decades have left audiences exhilarated and clamoring for more. The great news in recent months is that original Geils members frontman Peter Wolf, keyboardist Seth Justman, bass player Danny Klein, and harmonica virtuoso Magic Dick have teamed up along with extraordinary guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry and power house drummer Tom Arey to “blow your face out” as only the J. Geils Band can do.
Recently, the inimitable Peter Wolf broke from his frantic schedule to talk with Scene about the band, his career, and his love of Boston.
Scene: What has it been like both personally and professionally for you and your other J. Geils bandmates on the current Houseparty tour? Peter Wolf: The music remains the anchor. A lot of people in Boston grew up with Geils Band and are coming to the shows because they want to hear the repertoire they’ve known throughout the years. That’s always exciting for any musician. It’s no different when people used to pack a place to see Sinatra or now the Rolling Stones, they want to hear the material they made popular.
You also have a terrific solo career. How do you approach that as opposed to The Geils Band? As a solo performer you have a different kind of artistic freedom. It allows me to work with anyone who wants to work with me no matter the musical genre – rock, R&B, soul, folk, country, jazz, classical, anything. It’s also given me the opportunity to work with amazing artists like Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Merle Haggard just to name a few… I’ve learned a lot from experiences like that.
In terms of cutting loose, it sounds like bonding onstage with your Geils bandmates still ranks high. In the early days of Geils, I got hooked on the energy that came from the crowd. What has been both unbelievable and gratifying on the last 2015 dates is how all that enthusiasm from the audience still surrounds us and keeps pushing us to deliver. If I close my eyes for a second, it could be a concert in
the 70s or 80s. The energy and the fun of it feels the same. It’s still a huge turn-on. It’s unique and hard to describe because it’s something we feel between the audience and us.
It’s no secret that from early in your life, you were exposed to and embraced a wide range of musical genres. I was always surrounded by music and am so grateful for that fact. My dad was a musician. Think I got that in the DNA. I believe that true musicians embrace all styles of music and they learn the history of all the different kinds of genres. The Beatles and the Stones knew, lived, and breathed the music that preceded them – all the key blues, rockers and R&B greats became their influences. I honestly believe that it’s imperative for any artist to learn about their art’s past. It’s the same way for me not just about music, but also about painting and drawing. Painting is another passion of mine.
Even though you’re New York City born and bred, Boston has obviously become a special place for you. No doubt about it. It’s where I hang my hat. I first came to Boston to study painting at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. There were a lot of creative people studying there. In fact, my roommate was the filmmaker David Lynch.
Back then, Boston was a great place for artists and musicians. You could live cheap in so many places, even in Harvard Square, and the art and music scene was so connected. Everyone knew everyone else. Coming from New York, where the art and music world moved at such a frantic pace, Boston was a revelation. I mean, things moved fast here, too, but you had the time and space to learn your craft and to learn from others.
In Boston, I met my Geils bandmates, and even before that, there were so many cool clubs where new bands got a chance to show their stuff. I first started out as a member of a really colorful band made up of art students called, The Hallucinations. We started out playing clubs what was known back than as the “combat zone” and they were run by, let’s just say characters you might have seen on the TV show The Sopranos. The thing was that if you did a good job, you were well paid and treated with respect. It was a great teaching ground for me. Those clubs gave others and me a chance to be heard, and the word definitely spread fast if audiences liked you.
In essence, Boston proved to be your musical launching pad. Yes. All my musician friends lived in Boston, and it was in Boston that things began to happen for The Geils Band. There were so many places to play and also just as important, to hear others play. There were so many colleges, lots of terrific clubs to perform and just hang out. Boston back then had so much to offer musicians. The Jazz Workshop, Louie’s Lounge, Jack’s, Club 47, Hillbilly Ranch and of course the original Boston Tea Party where the Hallucinations were the house band for awhile. The Sugar Shack was another great place to hear and witness so many great soul groups and soul singers and they had a huge impact on The Geils Band and me. Unfortunately for all of us, there aren’t many places left like those now.
Off the top of your head, do you have a favorite spot in Boston today? I enjoy hearing music in Cambridge and Somerville. Of course, for hanging out there’s still the North End. It has kept so much of its historic character and reminds me of New York’s Little Italy and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx where I’m originally from. It’s also where singers Dion & The Belmonts and Bobby Darin are from. I spent a lot of time on those avenues listening to many great doo-wop groups that I still treasure.
Was there a moment during those early years in Boston and beyond where you suddenly realized that the Geils Band was going it hit it big? We were making some noise in and around Boston, but it was our first concert at the Fillmore East, in New York City, where we realized the possibility of having a real future doing what we loved.
Who do you listen to these days? I still try and listen to everything I can – from classical to R&B, jazz, soul, and so on. I still find that there are lots of great musicians out there in all genres that still keep my ears riveted. We have a lot of really great college radio stations in this town that I listen to all the time. There is also a radio show Sunday nights on a small radio station on the south shore, WATD. There, D.J. Bill Clark still plays the real deal stuff and of course Skippy White and D.J. Little Walter are still carrying on the great tradition by keeping the roots of rock’n’roll and R&B alive!
This might be impossible for you to answer, but if you had to pick a favorite J. Geils’ album, which one would it be? One of my favorites is Full House. I think it captured what we were all about, like the way a good photograph “freeze frames” a moment, pardon the pun. The same is true about Blow Your Face Out. The best thing on this tour is, I get to live it all over again onstage and I’m so glad that there’s still people wanting to see us after all this time. Music still plays such an important part in my life. I’ve been lucky to have the experience of my many years with The Geils Band and I’m also grateful that my solo career has continued to be so meaningful and artistically rewarding to me. I’m so thankful for it all!