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Howlin’: Peter Wolf at the Egg.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Gracefully

By David Greenberger

Peter Wolf

The Egg, May 21

It’s been eight years since Peter Wolf last played Albany, and this time he was booked into the right venue. His J. Geils Band days are nearly three decades behind him (not counting a series of reunion dates in 2009) and his solo albums (there have been seven) have increasingly revealed an artist who is following the lessons of his musical forebears: He continues to get better with age. The fact that Wolf was performing in the Egg’s smaller Swyer Theater was a surprise, but also the correct move: The room’s intimacy encouraged listening, which is what he wants.

Wolf’s just-released Midnight Souvenirs album is a career best (as were its three predecessors). The singer knows that a large percentage of people who come to see him want Geils songs. And he gave them some, but on his terms, meaning they did not define the night. A few were scattered into the 15-song set, and another appeared as an encore.

His five-piece band (including longtime guitarist Duke Levine) are sympathetically matched to one another and the material at hand. A look over the night’s first five songs tells the story well. They opened with “Growin’ Pain,” the midtempo, midvolume number that opened 2002’s Sleepless. With barely a beat between, they leapt into “Long Line” from the album of the same name, showing that they could get riffy and rocking on a moment’s notice.

Wolf pulled up a stool and sat down for the quieter “Long Way Back Again” from 1998’s Fools Parade. He took this opportunity to masterfully send a message that the night’s dynamics were going to include whisper-quiet passages, as he stepped away from the mic to play a few notes on the harmonica using only the room’s acoustics. From there he introduced the new album with the country lilt of “Always Asking for You” followed by the full-tilt Stones-like groove of “I Don’t Wanna Know.” The band moved between genres with ease, making the differences assets, as the night’s flow took on its own personality.

Peter Wolf is never short of fully committed to the songs he sings. The curve of his career as an artist perfectly mirrors the movement through the years that describes all of our lives. The partying songs are gone, giving way to loss, longing, and mortality. The loss is tempered by acceptance and experience, and the longing isn’t crippled by regret. There’s lust, but experience and self-awareness keep it all in perspective. Large parts of the audience were there to relive something of their youth, but they’d do well to listen to what Peter Wolf has created over the past decade. It truly is the soundtrack of their lives.

Golden Days

Caffe Lena 50th Anniversary Concert

Arlo Guthrie, Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group

Skidmore College, May 22

Although many folk coffeehouses sprang up in America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most were lucky to last a dozen years. Club 47 in Harvard Square ran from 1958 to 1963; and Greenwich Village’s Gaslight, also launched in 1958, folded in 1971. But as The New York Times noted in a May 18 story, Saratoga’s famed Caffe Lena, opened by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, has endured for 50 years.

Capping the venue’s golden anniversary weekend was a concert by folk’s favorite son Arlo Guthrie at Skidmore’s new Arthur Zankel Music Center. Its 600-seat theater, built with funds from a $46 million bequest to the institution, is an aural and visual treasure offering crystalline acoustics and an expansive view of the campus greenery through a high glass-paneled wall behind the stage. In this setting, Guthrie, himself a Lena alumnus, serenaded a sold-out house with his signature songs and tickled them with droll anecdotes and reminiscences of everything from seeing Leadbelly when Arlo was age 2 to playing at Woodstock, dosed (and perhaps even higher than I was watching him in the crowd).

Guthrie performed his delectable solo set on 6- and 12-string guitars, piano and rack-mounted harmonica. His playing was flawless throughout; his singing nasal but reliable. Best of all, though, were the often hilarious spiels with which the master raconteur introduced his songs.

For instance, as a prelude to “St. James Infirmary,” he milked every drop of humor from his tale of purchasing an old MGA sports car from Pete Seeger. Seeger, somehow thinking he was in England, took the young Guthrie out for a spin on the left side of the road and was oblivious to an oncoming truck as he explained the features under the dashboard to a terrified Guthrie. Seeger swerved out the way just in time.

Before “Coming into Los Angeles,” he told of his set at Woodstock, where, thinking he’d be performing on Saturday, he took psychedelics on Friday. Informed that he would be on next, an alarmed Guthrie found himself, as he described it, blending with the molecular structure of the stage’s floorboards as he stepped forward to play.

Opening were Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group, a singing Virginia couple augmented by electric bass, fiddle and mandolin. With Linda on guitar and banjo and Robin on guitar and harmonica, they served up a tight bluegrassy/old-timey mix of originals and covers. Linda Williams’ strong, clear voice is among the best in the folk field.

Happy 50th, Caffe Lena.

—Glenn Weiser


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