It sometimes can be hard to fathom that the J. Geils Band‘s smoldering blues- and soul-influenced 1970s catalog and its more mainstream pop and rock hits of the 1980s were actually produced by the same musicians. Some 40 years after the Boston group’s debut album, that contrast remains apparent — even onstage.
At this date in the band’s latest string of sporadic reunion concerts, Peter Wolf and Co. made it clear they still get off on throwing a dance party packed with jump-jiving blues and soul-shouting anthems. The group — lead singer Wolf, fellow core members Seth Justman (keyboards), J. Geils (guitar), Danny Klein (bass) and Magic Dick (harmonica), plus new drummer Marty Richards, a second guitarist, backup singers and a horn section — also seemed to prefer celebrating that part of their legacy more than revisiting the high-profile hits that closely preceded Wolf’s strained departure from the group in the early ’80s with the band at its commercial peak.
Sure, the 1981 smash “Centerfold” was dutifully included in the encore, but it would be difficult to imagine a flatter, more obligatory performance of a No. 1 hit. Earlier, Wolf introduced another popular song from ’81, “Freeze Frame,” with a putdown of MTV — “It sucks now and it sucked then” — and referenced the memorable paint-splattering video the band made for the tune, but it could have been an apology for the era from which the bouncy, keyboard-dominated hit came. As it was, on this performance of “Freeze Frame,” coincidentally or not, was more about horns than keys.
The J. Geils Band tackled the rest of the set in a decidedly unapologetic fashion, tearing through a bevy their roof-rattling and hip-shaking classics — the supremely funky “Detroit Breakdown,” followed by the irrepressible groove of “Give It to Me” marked a high point — plus soulful numbers (“Must’ve Got Lost,” “On Borrowed Time”) as well as several favorites they long ago adopted as their own (Otis Rush‘s “Homework,” The Marvelows‘ “I Do” and The Showstoppers‘ “Ain’t Nothin’ But a House Party,” to name a few).
The Boston band showed off its considerable musical arsenal on originals and covers alike, and the dynamic that made it a renowned live act in its heyday. Wolf, at 65, whirled and twirled around the stage like someone half his age, and proved to be in fine voice whether singing or working the crowd with his fast-talking ramblings. Magic Dick’s roadhouse wailing was spotlighted on such cuts as “Sanctuary,” and elsewhere he’d fire off short blues-harp riffs that frequently built up to him unleashing powerful solos. J. Geils picked his spots with well-timed bluesy interludes, and a handful of tunes climaxed with Justman’s loud, whizzing blasts of organ.
It all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable two hour-show that seemed like it might wrap up with the uneasy “Centerfold,” before the band scrapped the big “na-na-na” ending and instead sprinted through the Wilson Pickett hit “Land of 1,000 Dances,” shifting back into its comfort zone.
Opening act The Chris Robinson Brotherhood offered ample evidence that its namesake still must not mind being criticized for leaning too hard on his obvious musical influences. Whereas Robinson’s on-hold-again band of two-plus decades, The Black Crowes, was slagged by critics in its early years for borrowing too heavily from The Faces and The Rolling Stones, he and his backing players came off as not much more than Grateful Dead devotees.
The quintet — which includes the Crowes’ latest keyboard player, Adam MacDougall, and guitarist Neal Casal, recently of Ryan Adams‘ backing band — stuck to fairly formulaic, breezy jams that found Robinson, normally an energetic frontman, strangely devoid of any stage presence. Perhaps too preoccupied with his new duty as rhythm guitarist, he uttered not a word to the audience over his 50-minute slot except a perfunctory thank-you-and-good-night.
— By George Henn