Photo by Bill Kelly

Peter Wolf, SPACE, Evanston, IL-11/14

There are two things that one can unequivocally say about Peter Wolf, and both were on full display as he made the first of two appearances in the Chicago area. The first is that he has a profound appreciation for music and its rich history. When he fronted the J. Geils Band (2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee) they focused much of their early repertoire based on Wolf’s vast record collection. His gig as the all-night DJ at Boston’s WBCN prepped him for working relationships with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, John Lee Hooker, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Little Milton, Wilson Pickett, Shelby Lynne and Neko Case. The stories he told on stage at Space in Evanston, Ill., last night could fill a book. He reminisced about watching Lassie episodes in John Lee Hooker’s hotel room. And he recalled stomping on James Brown’s foot to get him to stop mumbling about politics while at a music summit sitting next to Madonna and George Clinton. He graciously reveled in his personal archives.

The second thing is that Wolf is charming in concert. His quick wit allowed him to sidestep divisive current events and some loud barking from the crowd. His repeated appreciation for the venue, his own management and road crew, and of course his fans, was bright and genuinely considerate. Then there is his admiration for the Harrisons from Maryland. The Harrisons are a middle-aged couple who travel around the country and attend Peter Wolf shows. While singing “It’s Too Late For Me,” a song he wrote with Merle Haggard, Wolf courteously paid their bar tab.

Touring in support of his new solo album A Cure for Loneliness, Wolf opened the almost two-hour set with the modern country romp of “Wastin’ Time” which made its original appearance in ballad form on his 1996 solo record Long Line before landing on the new album as a live track. Supported by the Midnight Travelers, including Duke Levine on guitar and mandola, Kenny White on keys and guitar, Marty “Dr. Jazz” Ballou on bass and Tom Arey on drums, Wolf moved proficiently through the set, taking time to share stories and change from dark to light sunglasses so he could better gauge the intimate crowd, or simply high five the Harrisons.

What Wolf may lack in vocal strength he makes up for in vivacious energy. Even at 70, his Jagger-like physique allows him the endurance to dance and writhe through the set. Dropping to his knees during the chorus of new track “Piece Of Mind” and leaping onto a fan’s chair during the lyrical groove of 1984’s “Light’s Out,” he showed no sign of age or fatigue.

The classics had the crowd dancing and the new songs meshed with the older material, but the Midnight Travelers truly showed their chops on the bluegrass mashup of Merle Haggard’s “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” and the J. Geils hit, “Love Stinks.” The dual expertise of Levine on mandola and Ballou on bass made this an authentic American roots rendition of traditional bluegrass.

The R&B pop of “The Usual Place” gave Wolf the opening to wander through the crowd, to shake and kiss the hands of those at cocktail tables. From 2010’s Midnight Souvenirs he sang “I Don’t Wanna Know” and from 2002’s superb Sleepless, there was “Nothing But The Wheel,” a song he recorded with Mick Jagger.

The encore was superb, as the band continued providing impeccable support and Wolf played the crowd like it was a room of his best friends. They closed out with the upbeat and memorable “Must Of Got Lost” from the 1974 J. Geil’s album Nightmares…and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle all the way to a standing ovation.