Peter Wolf is, in my opinion, one of the most unrespected vocalists in rock history. He was in a band that wasn't named after him (The J. Geils Band), but to me, he always symbolized the band's spirit & verve. They say white men don't have soul, but Peter has always been one of the few that truly do & even after leaving his band to go solo, he may not have saw a lot of commercial acclaim, yet artistically he hasn't done any wrong. Well into his 50s, Peter shows his unflagging vitality with his newest album SLEEPLESS.
It's a proven fact that J. Geils wasn't the same without Peter & when he left, it's no surprise they disbanded shortly after. The reunion concerts of a few years ago showed the chemistry was still there, but I imagine a studio reunion is either not in the cards or postponed for the time being because Peter is back doing his solo thing. While his early solo stuff was distinctly '80s, his most recent music has been more rootsy & closer to the raw blues & soul he grew up loving. SLEEPLESS is right up there with his best J. Geils work & is good to have until a full-fledged reunion does come to pass.
In the liner notes, Peter says he was inspired by a meeting with legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard in coming up with some of the material on SLEEPLESS. He sure took one bit of Howard's sage advice to heart: "Keep it simple". He sure does with songs like "A Lot Of Good Ones Gone", "Run Silent, Run Deep", "Hey Jordan" & the title track with lyrics that are straight & to the point, like the best soul music of yore. The legendary sound of Stax & the grittier Motown songs were undoubtedly on Peter's mind while he wrote these. Speaking of Stax, William Bell's "Never Like This Before" might sound lifted almost liberally from the original, but never having heard Bell's original, I still enjoy Peter's version immensely. Howard's influence also had a hand in other ways, as the overt country sounds of "Growin' Pain" & "Some Things You Don't Want To Know" (with country rocker & Wolf friend Steve Earle) demonstrates.
As that song shows, Peter doesn't have a strictly soulful heart. "Oh Marianne" is inspired by the Drifters, as Peter himself says, but the accordion & percussion make it sound more Latin in the arrangement, almost like former Drifter Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem". The story Peter describes behind this song is quite stunning in its own right. A deeper blues theme can be detected in songs like "Five O'Clock Angel", "Hey Jordan", Sonny Boy Williamson's "Too Close Together" & Otis Rush's "Homework" (which Peter had recorded with J. Geils before), the results being not just mere mimicry, but a singer learning his lesson well & still sounding like himself.
To further show that Peter Wolf's respect in the music industry is even more considerable than his commercial success, no less than two Rolling Stones chip in on SLEEPLESS. Mick Jagger shares vocal duties on the EXILE ON MAIN ST.-inspired (think "Torn & Frayed" mixed with "Sweet Virginia") "Nothing But The Wheel", which could accurately describe Mick's own life. Keith Richards has always been the rootsier member of the Stones, so his helping out on "Too Close Together" makes perfect sense & you wish today's Stones would come up with something half as rocking as this.
It's easy to knock artists over 50 for sticking around too long & not hanging it up. But truth be told, some artists actually get better & find their sense of purpose as they reach that pivotal age & Peter Wolf is certainly one of them. While his cult may be larger than his rate of success, the fact that Peter has refused to kowtow to major trends (at least with his 1990s music) is commendable for sure. SLEEPLESS is a stellar album from an artist who doesn't seem to lose any sleep over his lack of commercial success & those who are lucky to come across him should be grateful for that.