Yes, kids, there was a time when you could walk from Inman Square to Harvard, see Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker play at Club 47 (as Passim was then called), and have your whole worldview changed.
By Brett Milano
A whole lot of musical history flashed before your eyes during the J. Geils Band/Ian Hunter double bill at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion this week. Watching the Geils Band play a vintage-sounding set, you had to remember where this all came from: Yes, kids, there was a time when you could walk from Inman Square (then the band’s HQ) to Harvard, see Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker play at Club 47 (as Passim was then called), and have your whole worldview changed. The Geils band’s triumph was to channel that inspiration, with plenty of their own sound and showmanship, into something that would play the arenas through the ’70s and ’80s. But even at their “Centerfold” commercial peak they were always a blues band at heart; they remain the only big-time rock act ever to include a full-time, non-singing harmonica player.
Their triumph nowadays is still being the J. Geils Band despite a few recent changes — the most obvious being the lack of J. Geils. The founding guitarist fell out with the band three years ago (and tried unsuccessfully to withhold the name). Replacing him is Duke Levine, a fixture in Peter Wolf’s (and Dennis Brennan’s) solo band and one of the two or three best rock guitarists in Boston. Levine came in with something to prove, and he played that way — He got Geils’ trademark stinging tone right while adding plenty of his own licks, often in tandem with harmonica man Magic Dick. Still, there’s no denying that the band looks and feels different these days, with only four of the nine people onstage (including two backup singers, rhythm guitarist Kevin Barry and drummer Tom Arey, the third to take Stephen Jo Bladd’s place since the 1999 reunion) coming from the classic lineup; and with founding keyboardist Seth Justman being unusually restrained on Thursday. It seemed less like a reunion and more like Wolf doing the Geils catalogue with an all-star band.
Which is still something worth lining up to see, long as the material holds up and Wolf still has the fire. Neither was in doubt Thursday night, as Wolf defied age by singing everything in the proper key, and gyrating for 100 minutes while he was at it. He may get deep and reflective in solo shows, but with the band he remains in wild-man mode (Okay, there were two ballads — “Teresa” and “Start All Over Again,” neither often performed the first time around). There was of course no new material — Check out Wolf’s overlooked solo albums if you want that — but they went deep-catalogue for the set’s first half, unearthing early gems like “Wait” and Albert Collins’ instrumental “Sno-Cone,” before doing wall-to-wall hits in the second half.The band’s anthem “Ain’t Nothing But a Houseparty” was the inevitable show-closer, but I’m more partial to their treatment of the Countours’ “First I Look at the Purse,” their old show-opener which was Thursday’s last encore. Addressing the need to get a rich girlfriend quick, it’s full of funky humor, street wisdom, and sweaty groove — all of which are still this band’s specialties.
Longtime cult figure and ex-Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter has been on a creative comeback lately — releasing a few solid albums and touring extensively with his Rant Band — which isn’t all that unusual. What is unusual is that Hunter’s 76, and he still has the guts to do half a set’s worth of new songs. You’ll hear more acoustic guitar and harmonica in his newer material, but he’s hardly going gentle: “When I’m President” the title track from his latest disc, had lyrics about leaning on the one percent and getting his “ugly mug on Mount Rushmore,” plus a keyboard part that borrowed liberally from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The set oddly left out “Cleveland Rocks,” one of his few actual hits if not one of his better songs. But he went back to Mott days for “All the Way From Memphis,” Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” (which they cut with David Bowie as producer) and Bowie’s anthem of sexual exploration, “All the Young Dudes.” If there was any irony in an old dude singing this one, Hunter probably didn’t know and absolutely didn’t care.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.