In today’s landscape of fly-by-night sensations, YouTube phenoms and marginal chart toppers, it’s the lasting voices like Springsteen, Dylan and the Stones who continue to provide the kind sustenance that’s both nutritious and satisfying. And it’s not because they’re merely “survivors,” it’s because they’ve never rested on their laurels as mere nostalgia acts. And even though his name doesn’t invoke a similar level of idolatry, Peter Wolf belongs in their company.
So it was especially gratifying to see Mr. Wolf in the flesh, and in the intimacy of Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe on Friday night, to show the initiated and uninitiated alike (of which I was clearly the latter) how it’s done.
I’d always known Wolf as the dynamic frontman for the J. Geils Band, which had reunited this past summer for a tour that included Wolf as lead vocalist. (The fact that he married Faye Dunaway back in the day — 1975 to be exact — only added to his swagger and rock-royalty status.) But what Wolf displayed on Friday night was a command of the stage, his band, and a variety of musical styles that took the breath away.
He also was equally adept at playing the raconteur, dropping names like carpet bombs of his rock and blues associations as a rising artist, whether it was having eggs at two in the morning in Boston with Howlin’ Wolf or doing “chicken hops” (short-hop plane flights between tour destinations) with the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Wolf’s a storyteller in his music, too, with a voice both honeyed and granular, with every lyric clearly heard — no mean feat when so many of today’s singers appear more interested in establishing a mood than setting the scene.
But it was the breadth of Wolf’s solo material, much of it co-written with Will Jennings, that provided the evening’s most shining nuggets. Whether it was the on the down-and-dirty “Homework,” from the 2002 album “Sleepless,” or his Nico Case collaboration, the gorgeous ballad “The Green Fields of Summer,” from the much-lauded “Midnight Souvenirs” LP (2010), Wolf’s voice displayed a maturity and personality that well-nigh might be unmatched in the current pop ephemera.
And Wolf knows it. At one point he chided the audience for not paying close enough attention. “S’cuse me for a second but I thought this was a listening room” he complained at one point. “If you wanna talk, why don’t you go the fuck outside and talk?” Needless to say, the room was rapt from there on.
Backed by a top-notch, five-piece band that ranged from blues to Americana to straight-up rock, Wolf could not have been in finer company. One Wolf original, “Wastin’ Time” from his 1996 album “Long Line” — a rollicking, Dylanesque medium-tempo ballad with swirling organ, electric and acoustic guitars — sounded like it could have been a track left off of Dylan’s “Planet Waves” with the Band. But unlike Dylan, Wolf’s voice has only gotten better with age.
Wolf will wrap up his solo tour at New York’s City Winery on No. 3