Since I do a lot of bitching and moaning about the largely pathetic live-music network in South Florida, where worthwhile touring acts are as rare as a Miami snowstorm, I think it's only fair to point out that there are several fine shows lined up this week at various spots throughout the area. There's ex-Velvet Underground violinist John Cale and Chicago's Mighty Blue Kings at the Musicians Exchange (March 2 and 4, respectively); rap great Redman with local girl Mother Superia (February 28 at Salvation in South Beach); and the New Bomb Turks at Cheers in Miami (March 1). But perhaps most notable on this week's menu are Bobby Womack and Peter Wolf, two enormously gifted songwriters and soul singers who come at the genre from different but aesthetically linked angles. The former will be performing on Friday, February 28, at Studio One 83 (2860 NW 183rd St.), the latter on the same date at the Button South in Hallandale (100 Ansin Blvd.). They each kick off at the same time -- 9:00 p.m. -- so it'll be impossible to catch them both. Flip a coin or something, because either side will produce a winner.
If I had to choose, I'd probably go with Bobby Womack, not just because he's a scintillating live performer, but because he was an integral player in the early Sixties mutation of tough R&B into bubbling Southern soul. His roots are in gospel, and while still in his teens, Womack and his four brothers -- Curtis, Cecil, Friendly, Jr., and Harris -- toured the late-Fifties holy circuit as the Womack Brothers, opening for revered gospel groups such as the Spirit of Memphis and the Soul Stirrers. When Stirrers vocalist Sam Cooke crossed over to secular pop and R&B, he enlisted young Bobby as his guitarist, and after forming his own SAR label in 1959, Cooke signed the Womacks to a record deal. Rechristened the Valentinos, the brothers made their debut in 1962 with "It's All Over Now," following it two years later with "Lookin' for a Love." Their first hit was covered in '64 by the Rolling Stones; the second was a Top 30 hit by the J. Geils Band (featuring vocalist Peter Wolf) in 1971.
After the Valentinos broke up, Womack worked as a songwriter and session guitarist for countless soul and rock vocalists, from Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield to Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, and Janis Joplin. (He was also married briefly to Sam Cooke's widow.) In the late Sixties, Womack found a new recording home at Minit Records in New Orleans, where he racked up several gritty hits built around his choogling guitar work and gravelly vocals, including "What Is This," "Fly Me to the Moon," and a slow-burn version of the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming." In the Seventies he hit his commercial stride at United Artists with songs like "Harry Hippie," "That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha," and a remake of "Lookin' for a Love." He also produced and cameoed on the fine 1974 solo debut by Rolling Stone Ron Wood (1974's I've Got My Own Album to Do).
Womack survived the disco era but lost his commercial footing amid the electro-funk of the mid-Eighties (save the R&B chart hits "Love Has Finally Come at Last," a duet with Patti LaBelle, and "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much"). He's still cranking out albums, and remains a good draw on the Southern soul circuit. His last burst of pure genius, however, came in 1986 on the vastly underrated album Womagic, recorded in Memphis with his old Sixties producer Chips Moman.
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Peter Wolf is probably best remembered by the masses for his campy, scene-stealing presence in the early-Eighties videos of the J. Geils Band, which, during the nascence of MTV, had several huge hits ("Love Stinks," "Centerfold," "Freeze-Frame"). Those songs weren't bad, but Wolf's legacy leading up to Geils' commercial apex deserves more attention, as do the four solo albums he's released since breaking away from Geils in 1983. Before they bought synthesizers and cultivated an image as goofy music-vid stars, the J. Geils Band (named after the group's guitarist) were maybe the greatest white R&B band of the Seventies, playing a hard, swaggering brand of blues and soul at a time when most rockers were dabbling in glam or nibbling at the remains of psychedelia. Wolf's clever phrasing and manic intensity was a throwback to the vocal calisthenics of the looniest Fifties doo-woppers, while Magic Dick's harp work approximated the freight-train wail of Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter Jacobs.
It was a sound better heard live than on record, but the J. Geils Band managed to pop out a few fine albums (start with 1977's Monkey Island, then move back to their self-titled debut from 1971) and a few FM staples ("Give It to Me," "Must of Got Lost"). After bickering with co-songwriter/keyboardist Seth Justman over the band's creative direction, Wolf lit out for a solo career that's moved gracefully from synth-funk pop (1984's Lights Out, co-produced with Michael Jonzun) to crunching, radio-ready rock (Come as You Are from '87, and 1990's Up to No Good) that never found the airwaves.
Long Line, Wolf's 1996 return after a six-year hiatus from recording and touring, hasn't fared any better than his previous three outings. Nevertheless, it's the finest album of Wolf's 30-year career -- a musically diverse rumination on the things you think about when you're alone, confused, and growing no younger. In "Wastin' Time" Wolf chews on his self-pity and melancholy over a languid, acoustic-based groove that wouldn't be out of place on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, while "Goodbye" offers a pessimist's discourse on the futility of commitment. A downer to be sure, Long Line represents just a facet of Wolf's artistry, and live he's anything but a forlorn old fart. Expect his Hallandale set to lean heavily on soul raveups and biting rock and roll -- the kind of stuff you hear far too seldom in these barren parts.
-- By John Floyd