Saturday, May 14, 2016

Peter Wolf: The Elements of Showmanship


It's widely agreed that Peter Wolf, pride of Boston and lead singer for the past and occasionally present J. Geils Band, is a front man beyond compare. What is less talked about is what that means exactly. On Thursday night we caught Wolf and his band, The Midnight Travelers, at the Somerville Theater, just down the road from us. Here are a few elements of showmanship on display during the rip-roaring performance.

1. Dress the part. Peter was rockin' a black and white leopard print jacket of the type you can only wear if you've got the confidence. The jacket came on and off during the performance, often for dramatic effect, rather like James Brown tossing off the cape to get back to it and "get on up" one more time.

2. You need some cool moves and Wolf really brings it. High energy is an understatement, and considering the man is 70, it's astounding. He knows he sets the tone for both the band and the audience. It's like: Have no fear 'cause Peter is here. Show time.

3. When I read the Miles autobiography, he said he learned from Billy Eckstine that a good performer steps into the applause. What he meant was that when you play a crowd-pleaser and the crowd is going nuts start the next song while the applause is at its peak. The Midnight Travelers did this a few times, with the follow up song being a fast rocker.

4. Be a master of pacing. The concert took the crowd up and down and back again several times. Peter can do hard rockin' and pin-drop quiet with equal skill. Decades of touring have taught him what works and when. Similarly, the songs ranged from sexy to serious with no drop-off in the engagement level in the house. The set went from strength to strength. Of course, you need a strong catalog, and Wolf has it. I love his solo work -- especially 2010's Midnight Souvenirs -- so it's not a matter of sitting through the new stuff to get to the old hits. This set featured songs from Wolf's latest: A Cure for Loneliness. But when the J Geils hits came in toward the end, it was definitely blissful. The evening ended with "Must of Got Lost" segueing into Jackie Wilson's  "(Your Love Is Taking Me) Higher and Higher."

5. Be a master of song forms. Like Wolf's recorded work over the last couple decades, the concert featured songs working every mode of classic or vintage soul, R&B, rock, country, and the blues. Among the genre highlights: the song Wolf recorded with the late, great Merle Haggard, "It's Too Late For Me." Like the classic soul performers, Wolf arranges the songs for maximum impact, bringing the levels up and down, and employing devices like dramatic pauses -- all moves that require the band to be responsive like a sports car taking tight corners.

5. Be a master story-teller. The interweaving of stories made the whole thing feel like an accomplished piece of performance art as opposed to just a concert. Wolf creates a total experience for the audience. The best story involved his boyhood in the Bronx in the 1950s when he and his pals (who taught him to "smoke, drink, and spit") went down to Times Square for an X-rated movie. They got in because in the gang was one of those kids who, Wolf said, is eleven but looks like he's going on 40. Springsteen is someone who is also a master story teller.

6. Have a band that is so good that it requires you to raise your game. The Midnight Travelers* are a group of unassuming virtuosos -- artists not just musicians, Wolf said. More than once after a killing solo Wolf would go over to the player for a congratulatory handshake. I love when the backing musicians aren't taken for granted. Wolf also thanked his crew and his team by name, another classy move that reveals that Wolf, though a showman par excellence, is not on a star trip.

7. Be grateful. At one part there was this guy standing near the stage and Wolf went over, mid-song, to shake his hand, at which point the guy kissed Wolf's hand. Didn't expect that. But totally didn't expect it when Wolf kissed the guy's hand back. Maybe the best showmanship is be, deep down, not a showman at all, but a lover of music and what we get from sharing music together. Even after all his years as a successful musician, says Wolf, he still thinks of himself first and foremost as a music fan.

* Duke Levine, guitar; Kevin Barry, guitar; Marty Ballou, bass; and Tom Arey, drums.

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