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Peter Wolf @ Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

Nov. 19, 2016

Nov. 21, 2016
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Peter Wolf looks the part of senior citizen rocker. At 70, the former J. Geils Band singer was a svelte, wiry mass of energy in a tiger-print jacket and black shirt buttoned down far enough to show a swinging, silvery medallion flashing from his bare chest. With a gravity-defying mop of black hair and sunglasses dark as his locks, Wolf made any notion about his kind of music being a young man’s game a moot point.

Fortunately, there was more than a compelling look about Wolf when he played Potawatomi Casino’s Northern Lights Theater Saturday night. With a voice he has kept in fine, bluesy fettle since his ’80s commercial peak, he drew mostly from his eight solo albums for his 21-song set. When he drew from his Geils-era work, nearly often as not he re-contextualized it into something unexpectedly fresh.

The most surprising such instance may have been the first one of the night. One of his engagingly rambling stories included a long anecdote about how he discovered bluegrass music and eventually met genre pioneer Bill Monroe. It ended with his band barreling into an acoustic version of “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” and segueing into the Geils Band hit “Love Stinks.” Those who have heard Wolf’s latest album, A Cure For Loneliness, would not have been so startled, as a similarly Appalachian rendition of “Stinks” appears there.

Contrasting with the melancholic lyrical tone of much of what Wolf sang from his last few solo outings was an interpolation of Jackie Wilson’s ebullient “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” amid the less cheery Geils biggie, “Must Of Got Lost.” It worked as an affirmation of Wolf’s declaration that staying on the concert circuit is his own cure for loneliness.

Though the sad songs comprising much of his later work haven’t garnered him much in the way of hits, some of that melancholia has blossomed into high-profile duet. The late Merle Haggard, of course, couldn’t be there for Wolf’s run through of “It’s Too Late For Me.” He had a bit of fun explaining Mick Jagger’s absence for “Nothin’ But The Wheel” by pretending a set list he retrieved from the floor was a letter from the lead Rolling Stone explaining that he was in the Bahamas having a bevy of young women rub Oil of Olay onto his rear. More gravely, he prefaced “Fun For A While” with the tale of a friend who had died, and “Growing Pain” chronicles the urge toward evil from Cain’s slaughter of Abel to everyone else’s own battles of conscience. 

A showman as animated as Wolf knows how to keep things light amid all the heaviness he articulates, too, though. After randomly announcing that there would be a set change, he merely changed his glasses to a pair with lighter frames. The punchline of a star-struck young Wolf visiting grizzled bluesman John Lee Hooker in the latter’s hotel room while they watched Lassie made for an even heartier laugh before Wolf launched into Hooker’s “Serves You Right To Suffer.” That wasn’t the only remake from the Geils Band’s first album to make the cut this evening, as Otis Rush’s “Homework” made for a joyous burst of insouciance, too. It was on such pieces that Wolf allowed his Midnight Ramblers band, especially electric guitarist Duke Levine and keyboardist/acoustic guitarist Kenny White, their own extended, tasty solo forays.

Perhaps because it served as the end of Wolf’s prime era with Geils’ band, he sang nothing from their multi-platinum early ’80s long-player, Freeze Frame. It would have been fun to have seen him dance to “Centerfold” or its R&B radio hit “Flamethrower,” but so be it. That disappointment, however understandable, does nothing to deter from the night’s lesson in how to age and rock with panache. 

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