Photo above: Peter Wolf photo © Joe Green
Musician, music historian and badass J Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf brings his band The Midnight Travelers to Portland’s Aladdin Theatre, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave. Tuesday August 9 in an 8 pm show. Tickets are on sale at the Aladdin box office or online at aladdin-theater.com.
Wolf’s new solo album, A Cure For Loneliness s aptly-titled. The music is hot, the roots run deep and Wolf and his elastic band reminds us of the times when music wasn’t segmented. Country, blues, R n B and everything in between are atmospheres the band moves through with groove and grace. This album of soulful tunes makes a differencer in this land that forgot how inspiring a great radio song can be. On the cover, he holds a small record player with 45’s stacked up (remember 45s?). Wolf and The Midnight Travelers are at home playing so many kinds of music, these songs would all be great 45s. He even covers J Geils’ Love Stinks as an acoustic bluegrass romp.
The Southeast Examiner got to spend a half hour with Wolf via phone and the conversation careened from his early Greenwich Village adventures with Sun Ra, Dinah Washington to John Lee Hooker, Merle Haggard Lefty Frizell and the band he’s excited to be playing with now. Wolf’s enthusiasm for every kind of music, the people who play it and where it’s from historically is encyclopedic and vast.
Examiner: We’re excited to hear that you have a new record. Tell us something about yourself.
PW: I started out as a painter and I loved music, it was always so important; it was the backdrop of my life – it still is. I joined a band to meet musicians and I did. In the Village, I got to see Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, I got to see Charles Mingus, I got to see Dylan before he recorded his first record, I got to see Jimi Hendrix when he was Jimmy James backing up John Hammond Jr. It was an iconic time. There was so much mixed music; it wasn’t segmented. There was so much available to see, like Bob Dylan opening up for John Lee Hooker and you’d say “What’s this young folk singer doing opening up for this bluesman?” but it all worked; it all made sense and it was all out there.
What I love is, the band that I have, The Midnight Travelers, are really iconic artists and players. Marty Ballou on bass is in the Rhode Island Jazz Hall of Fame; Kevin Barry is a great jazz blues player; Duke Levine on guitar and probably Owen Bradley are right up with Chet Atkins and James Burton in terms of their technical ability, so I feel really blessed. That’s who we’re coming to the West Coast with. Most people are unaware that the record’s coming out so you’re a great help here. Thank you for helping us get the word out about this.
I remember at a young age, going to Birdland and seeing Art Blakey with the original Jazz Messengers with Lee Morgan on trumpet and he called up these two young guys, two brothers who turned out to be Cannonball and Nat (Adderly) and then, up came The Queen, they called her The Queen, and up came this woman in a fur coat and a blond wig who sang the dirtiest songs ever. That turned out to be Dinah Washington.
I remember talking to Son House and this was the guy that taught Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson how to play. When I think back at it I say “Wait a second! I was just talking to one of the founders of blues as we know it today!” I remember having lunch with Bill Monroe and many people consider him “the Father of Bluegrass” and it’s pretty amazing. I still think there’s great music being made today. A lot of folks say “Why make a record?” and I say: That’s what I do!
Examiner: Tell us about A Cure For Loneliness
PW: Well, the working title was Peace of Mind because that’s one of the cornerstone tracks on it. All my life, the cure for loneliness has been music, and even when I was feeling good it was a cure. We recorded everything in the studio and then we did a lot of live recording and then we mixed up which versions we felt had more impact. It’s a continuation… a path I’ve been trying to achieve which is basically… I really relate to…for me personally, the musician that you can relate the music to the person. So when you hear something like a John Coltrane track, you can believe that Coltrane is feeling what he’s playing and when you hear a track by Dylan or Van Morrison, you can believe what they’re saying; or a Billie Holiday track – you can believe emotionally that they believe, even if they didn’t write that song, that they’re singing that song because they have some kind of emotional investment in it.
So I am trying to make the record more personal with some sense of humour, with fun to it, trying to incorporate the different roots I have, which is many, being from country, jazz, gospel, r n b, rockabilly, rock, the whole smorgasbord. That’s what this new recording is about. I have a band I record with and travel with and they’re great, and the evening is: I pick songs from the new record, I pick songs from the solo stuff and I put in some of my favourite Geils’ songs which I helped write and create so it’s a pretty interesting fun evening of music for those who want to come out. That’s why we’re coming to Portland.
Examiner Any Portland-centric stories to share with our readers?
PW: I remember in Portland, (back in the 70s) we used to stay at the Benson Hotel, and in those years, TV went off around midnight and the bars closed, but somehow in Portland, we always found an after- hours bar. We loved it because we could go nuts and then roll on to Seattle. We loved Eugene too. Eugene and Portland always embraced the Geils Band in a special way. We always had a fond feeling for the city and felt a great vibe from Portland. Being from the East, Portland, Maine was always special to us too so we had two Portlands.
Examiner: Are you still painting?
PW: Yep, still painting. When I’m not making music, I’m making paintings. The last record I put out that had duets with Shelby Lynne, Neko Case and Merle Haggard, I did all the artwork for that album, Midnight Souvenirs. Working with Merle was one of the highlights of my career.
Examiner A Merle Haggard story?
PW: I just feel so honoured to spend time with him, and he taught me so much. He was so involved in the history of the music he loved. I learned so much from him just recording with him, seeing him go deep into a song and bring it alive. It was a pretty transforming experience for me. I still miss him. He’s one of the people I find is undervalued. Many people just think of him as the guy who wrote Okie From Muskogee. They don’t realize the depth of his artistry, the importance of his artistry.
Examiner: The song you recorded with him, It’s Too Late For Me – one of your songs?
PW: Yeah, it’s funny. I played it for him and he said “Peter, where did you find that Lefty Frizell song?” and that was like the greatest compliment you could get from Merle because he adored Lefty Frizell. His piano player called me and said “Merle loves that song. Matter of fact, we’re gonna be recording it in a couple of weeks.” I said “What do you mean?” He said “Well he’s playing it, we’re learning it, we’re gonna record it.” I said “Wait. I sent it to him so he and I could record it.” He said “Oh, I better tell Merle that.” We finally recorded it and it was really exciting, during the Last of the Breed Tour with Ray Price and Willie Nelson and I got to spend time with all of them. You know, Ray Price was a roommate of Hank Williams? When Hank died, The Drifting Cowboys became The Cherokees with Ray Price and Willie was his bass player so it was like being amongst a great history of stuff…
Don’t forget: “If it’s in you it’s got to come out. That’s what rock and roll is all about. Kick it high!”