In the middle of introducing a song during his free outdoor show in Manhattan on Aug. 3, Peter Wolf had to pause. He couldn’t remember what album it was on.
He turned to his backing band, got his answer — the song, “Nothing But the Wheel,” was from 2002’s Sleepless— and joked of his albums: “They’re collectors’ items. I put them out, and two weeks later they disappear.”
He was exaggerating, but nobody would dispute that Wolf’s sporadic releases over the past 25-plus years have been very much under the radar compared to his early solo work in the 1980s and his output before that with the J. Geils Band. But if it was any consolation, this performance showed that the singer’s lesser-known songs can fit quite nicely alongside the material from the Geils heyday, which made up seven of the set’s 15 songs.
The middle portion of the show was the best evidence of this and also reinforced the fact Wolf has consistently touched on various musical genres. “Riverside Drive,” an ode to Wolf’s New York roots — he was born in the Bronx and mentioned the borough several times — found him essentially rapping over a funky arrangement. “It’s Too Late for Me,” a ballad he recorded as a duet with Merle Haggard, was as forlorn as the title indicates, helped along by Kevin Barry’s weeping lap-steel guitar.
“Peace of Mind,” from Wolf’s most recent album, 2016’s A Cure for Loneliness, followed, leading into a similarly laid-back soul number, “Start All Over Again,” released by the J. Geils Band more than four decades earlier. The electric guitars were then cranked back up for “I Don’t Wanna Know,” from 2010, which flowed nicely into a crowd-pleasing Geils classic, 1980’s “Love Stinks.”
Time and eras seemed to matter little, which was fitting, considering the wiry Wolf is an age-defying 72. Save for the rare song that was too mellow to dance to, he proved equally energetic whether belting out a number from two years or 40 years ago. In a metallic gold jacket and shades, he was his usual blur between verses, shimmying, whirling or sometimes just boogieing in place. In more ways than one, it seems he hasn’t lost a step, and judging by the way he attacked the night’s final song, an emphatic cover of The Showstoppers’ “Ain’t Nothing But a Houseparty,” he was just getting warmed up after 75 minutes.
Opening act The Super Soul Banned, an 11-member funk combo with some impressive resumes, came out strong with a loud barrage of brass to usher in The Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger” and didn’t let up. Led by veteran drummer and producer Steve Jordan, who was angled at stage right barking out changes and cues like “Bridge!” and “Keep it there,” the group leaned heavily on its five-piece horn section and frequently launched into extended jams.
Those horns included saxophonist Ronald Bell of Kool & the Gang, and The Super Soul Banned offered up commendable versions of two of that group’s hits: “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie.” But the latter’s momentum was ultimately halted by a scratching solo, if that is the term, from Mix Master Mike, a DJ best known for his work with the Beastie Boys. He seemed somewhat of an odd fit when it came to his place onstage, too; he and his turntables were heavily obscured by the horn players much of the time.
Meanwhile, guitarist Ray Parker Jr. kept a pretty low profile for someone with a Billboard No. 1 pop hit to his name, 1984’s “Ghostbusters.” He casually strummed, smiled and contributed backing vocals, finally stepping out front for a modest solo near the end of the set-closing jam and playfully squeezing out a snippet of the “Ghostbusters” melody.
— By George Henn
Peter Wolf, shown performing in July 2017 in Philadelphia. Photo by Chris M. Junior