by Steve Desroches
Good music, really good music, is like a portal to another time, and not just the past. Personal tastes may limit the genre, but a classic has the ability to take a listener to a specific place in life while still being entertaining now and on into the future. So it’s no wonder that the J. Geils Band, with epic hits like “Freeze Frame,” “Must of Got Lost,” “Love Stinks,” and “Centerfold,” is continually on the short list for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And a major part of that band’s success is the lead vocals laid down by Peter Wolf, who’s been a major figure in American rock music for over 50 years and is coming back to his old stomping grounds with a one-night-only show at the Payomet Performing Arts Center.
When Wolf takes to the stage at the tent in North Truro, he’ll do so with one of his latest musical collaborations, the Midnight Travelers, for a concert featuring an extensive repertoire that includes new work, covers, and of course some of the J. Geils Band classics. At 72, Wolf has seen it all in rock and roll, with early roots in his native New York City before moving to Boston to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he plugged into the city’s rock scene almost immediately, performing in the gritty nightclubs of the old Combat Zone on the same bill as acts like the Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, and Sun Ra. And so began a career that has managed to maneuver all the incarnations and evolutionary paths American rock music has undergone over the past 50 years.
“I started out as a painter and I still paint,” says Wolf. “I think if one looks at the world of painting there’s cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and so on. There are always artistic changes in painting. The same is true in music. It morphs in all kinds of ways. You just do what is relevant to yourself. That’s really all you can do. If you start chasing trends you’ll find yourself changing with the flow until it hits a wall and then it’s hard to change. I focus on what’s classic.”
While an art student in Boston, he helped form the band the Hallucinations in 1964. When not painting or playing with the band, he hosted a show on WBCN in the city where he interviewed the rock, blues, and jazz musicians that played Boston throughout the mid to late Sixties, right at the time he joined the J. Geils Band over in the small city of Worcester. Throughout his life, Wolf’s been a student of the arts, both in and out of the classroom, finding mentors and inspiration most everywhere he looked. While he began his artistic life as a painter, continuing the family legacy (both his parents were artists), Wolf went to the prestigious High School of Music & Art in Harlem, before his studies in Boston. Going to high school not far from the iconic Apollo Theater provided invaluable opportunities for the young Wolf, as he went to see shows there almost weekly.
“I saw all the great R & B singers, the soul singers, comedians, dancers, jazz musicians, I saw them all,” says Wolf. “Ray Charles, John Coltrane, the Drifters, the Motown revues, James Brown, Dinah Washington. It was a magical place. For me it was like going to church. The performers were the ministers and the audience the congregation. There’s a sacred energy to that place.”
Wolf says the same about the Outer Cape. He began coming to Provincetown as a child in the 1950s with his artist parents and met art colony giants like Hans Hoffman. He returned in the 1960s with the Hallucinations, at a time when Cape Cod, and especially Provincetown, had a robust rock and roll scene. The Hallucinations played Town Hall and the Atlantic House, as well as several other venues that catered to the large numbers of young people then on the Cape tip, back in the heyday of the hippies.
He’d return to the Cape with the J. Geils Band to play the legendary Cape Cod Coliseum, which opened in 1972 in South Yarmouth, where everyone from the Rolling Stones to Black Sabbath to the Grateful Dead played. (It closed in 1984 and is now a storage warehouse for the Christmas Tree Shops). But the memories that flood back are of those early days in Provincetown, when the Hallucinations often opened for blues legend Muddy Waters, staying in ramshackle cabins or, on several occasions, sleeping in the woods just out of town, partying and jamming the night away.
“I had the chance to experience it at the end of what was a real bohemian enclave, before it shifted to being more commercial. But most places are now,” says Wolf. “There was such a great community of artists and musicians then. We played all over town. Its culture was amazing, and it still is. That part of the Cape is a special place.”
Peter Wolf & the Midnight Travelers perform at the Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., North Truro on Sunday, August 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($38/$55/$75) are available at the box office and online at payomet.org. For more information call 508.487.5400.