The J. Geils Band/Ian Hunter & The Rant Band
Blue Hills Pavilion, Boston MA
August 28, 2015
The J. Geils Band titled their second live album Blow Your Face Out, and this pretty much remains their intent nearly 40 years after that album’s release. If singer Peter Wolf doesn’t execute the jumping-frog stage moves he did back in that era, forgive him. He’s 69, still slender as a rail, and a whole lot more agile than folks 40 years his junior. Onstage in concert with the J. Geils Band, he’s pretty much on the go all the time. Yeah, there may be a Dorian Gray-like picture he’s got up in his attic.
The J. Geils Band, touring without their namesake guitarist (see accompanying story below) but with Duke Levine and Kevin Barry providing that power, whipped through a nearly two-hour set for hometown fans.
It felt familiar, comforting and energizing and, yes, expectedly a little odd given the history and trajectory of the group. For all intents and purposes, The J. Geils Band shut down after Wolf exited in 1983, a still murky departure chalked up to the inevitable “artistic differences” with songwriting partner/keyboardist Seth Justman. This happened as the band, after years of proving their mettle in the arenas of American cities, was cresting. They had hit the top of the pop mainstream in 1981 with “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame” during the early MTV era. (The band did continue briefly after Wolf left, making one album with Justman handling lead vocals.)
The group with Wolf – but without founding drummer Stephen Jo Bladd – reunited for a tour in 1999, and then again a decade later. There were other sporadic one-offs including a 60th birthday party show for bassist Danny Klein that I went to in 2006. As to recording new music, that’s not going to happen. Wolf is working his solo career with a new album expected in the early part of 2016.
Some personal history: The J. Geils Band was virtually my house band in high school. Growing up in mid-Maine, they played our one viable rock venue, the Bangor Auditorium, with what I recall as “much frequency.” Don’t think I missed a show from 1971 to 1974 and then saw them after I went into college at the University of Maine. Totally enthralled by the high energy of “First I Look at the Purse,” and “Homework,” especially, only learning later that they didn’t write them. That’d be the Contours and Otis Rush, respectively.
What Geils did in the ‘70s was much like what the Rolling Stones did in the ‘60s: They took obscure (or not) R & B songs which they loved and pumped them up for a rock‘n’roll audience. More than a few times the Geils Band was tagged as “the American Rolling Stones” (or, sometimes, “the Jewish Rolling Stones).
“They were an automatic sellout,” recalls former Maine concert promoter Andrew Govatsos of the concerts he and his company booked into Bangor and Augusta. (Govatsos went on to work radio promo for Reprise Records for many years and now co-runs The Artist Cooperative, which markets national artists to radio.)
Back to the present: Boston, late August, 2015. The Geils Band packed the early ‘80s hits into a nice mid-set block – “Sanctuary,” “Freeze-Frame,” “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks” – but those aforementioned early songs were highlights of the set for me. Those, along with “Southside Shuffle,” “Pack Fair and Square,” “Night Time,” “Houseparty” and “Musta Got Lost.” (I was sorry they’d dropped the long John Lee Hooker blues song, “Serves You Right to Suffer,” which they’d played the previous night in New York.) “Whammer Jammer,” harpist Magic Dick’s signature song, remains a big crowd-pleasing blow-out. The semi-reggae hit from 1973, “Give It To Me,” had that frantic breakdown jam/coda after Wolf blew the whistle. This was a well-rehearsed band. No squeaky wheels evident. Serious fun.
Full disclosure: I know some the guys in the band to varying degrees. I started interviewing them back in 1975 for a Maine-based music magazine, Sweet Potato, and continued to do so during my years at the Boston Globe. But I really don’t know what the interpersonal relationships are now offstage. Whatever they are, they were a synchronous unit on stage. Maybe it’s them creating illusion of camaraderie – or maybe it is genuine for that time on stage. If you didn’t know the history, you wouldn’t sense any animosity. And, yes, of course, there’s a payday at the end of the night, so there are financial incentives. But the band felt like a gang and we out there in the crowd, we felt ever-so included, as always.That’s one of Wolf’s strong suits.
Wolf played the jive-talking ringleader, gave generous props to all – including backup singers Andricka Hall and Cheryl Freeman, and very much so to Justman. When it was time for Justman’s leads, Wolf – clad in black, mostly wearing shades – shook his fingers madly at him, paying tribute, miming Justman’s keyboard fingerwork. Early in the set, Wolf saluted “the first song Seth and I wrote together, our first single,” which was “Wait.”
Wolf loves dropping the names of blues/rock legends the Geils Band shared the stage with in the days of the old Boston Tea Party club – Howlin’ Wolf, The Jeff Beck Group, Rashaad Roland Kirk – and by extension he’s putting the Geils Band in that lineage: Old-school enough to have been there when it was new, still got enough vim and vigor to keep it fresh for 2015. The business of rock ‘n’ roll – and especially the J. Geils Band brand – is to let the good times roll, and business was good.
Ian Hunter opened with a 45-minute set, backed, as he’s been for some time, by the Rant Band. The first song was “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” which I remembered playing to death on college radio – the opening salvo from Hunter’s first post-Mott the Hoople solo album with its “‘allo, ‘allo, ‘allo ‘allo” intro. A big smile crossed my face and then someone reminded me that the odious band Great White had a hit with this in 1989 – and that was how many people know the song. Well, anyway, Hunter reclaimed it this night, as he does every time he sets foot on stage, frankly.
Hunter is now 76 and when I interviewed him a few years ago I asked him his secret to keeping fresh – not just playing the expected hits in concert but writing strong new material. He said it had a lot do with not hanging around people his age but with musicians the age of those in his band. They’re not kids exactly – we’re talking guys like guitarist James Mastro (ex-Bongos, Health & Happiness Show) and drummer Steve Holley (whose credits include Wings, Elton John and Joe Cocker) – but guys a generation or two down from Hunter who are still plugged in.
Main complaint: You didn’t get the full-on Hunter show – a mix of old and new that you do get on his headlining club tours – but given the opening slot constrictions, you got a pretty good dose. The mid-set “All the Way From Memphis” remains the ultimate roller coaster ride of rock‘n’roll truthiness – “You gotta stay a young man/You can never grow old!” And the wind-up was sublime: “When I’m President” – the strong and right-now-quite-relevant title track to his most recent album – followed by the Velvet Underground’s’ “Sweet Jane” and Bowie’s/Mott’s “All the Young Dudes.”
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I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.