Peter Wolf has found his musical past.

As the frontman for the very-rocking J. Geils Band, Wolf dominated the band and its aura with his over-the-top stage presence, energy and good-timing attitude. In so doing, he also painted himself into a musical corner. Everyone expected more of the same whenever he attached his name to a project.

With his seventh solo album, Wolf has finally succeeded in getting people to pay attention to his true musical identity. “Midnight Souvenirs,” released in April, is as much a country record as it is an R&B-influenced rock record. It’s getting great reviews and bringing the 64-year-old Wolf the kind of critical praise and commercial exposure that he has not enjoyed since his days with J. Geils in the ’70s and ’80s.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Wolf, who will be in Portland on Wednesday for an early-evening performance with his band at Port City Music Hall on Congress Street. Show time is 8 p.m.

“Sleepless,” Wolf’s previous solo effort from 2002, earned a lot of great reviews too, but not a lot of people noticed. People are noticing “Midnight Souvenirs” — it’s his highest-charting solo effort in more than 20 years.

“The first question everybody asks is, ‘Why did it take so long to make the record?’ The reason is because the record industry was going through some very difficult changes in between the time I released ‘Sleepless’ and this record,” Wolf said by phone from Boston last week during a rehearsal break with his road band.

“The record industry was the first major industry decimated by digital technology. So I did a lot of other things, including just waiting to see what was going to happen to the record industry, to see if it would even survive.”

Wolf treated the record as a movie producer might an independent film. He lined up backers, made a record that he felt good about, and began shopping for a home for it. He talked to a bunch of record labels, and ultimately settled on Verve because he appreciated the fact that the label liked the record. They understood its vibe, he said.

“They totally got what we were trying to do.”

THE ‘OLD-FASHIONED’ WAY

Wolf characterized the recording process on the new CD as “old-fashioned.” He invited a bunch of friends, including producer and longtime collaborator Kenny White, to work on the project. Larry Campbell came in to play guitar, along with most of the guys he’s on the road with in his touring band. The Uptown Horns also appear on the record.

Most important, he recruited Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne and the sweet-singing Neko Case to sing duets. They recorded most of the record live, giving it a raw, honest feeling.

There’s also a timeless appeal to “Midnight Souvenirs.” It sounds like it could have been made in the 1950s, which makes sense. Wolf grew up in New York in the ’50s listening to the radio, which played music by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, all of whom were influenced by country and blues.

As much an any record he’s ever made, “Midnight Souvenirs” reflects his musical roots, Wolf said.

“I bewildered my friends in J. Geils because I liked country music so much,” he said “They thought country was from another universe. But I had this great affinity for George Jones, Buck (Owens) and, of course, Merle.”

Singing with Haggard was special. Throughout his career, Wolf has had the chance to sing and perform with a lot of major names in the music business, from the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

Haggard ranks right up there with the very best, he said.

“Merle has this legendary aura around him. When I first met the Stones, it was Gram Parsons and Mick and Keith, and they were singing Merle’s ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ His body of work is so great, and so expansive. People know him for ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ but that wasn’t really Merle at all. That would be like knowing Chuck Berry for ‘My Ding-a-Ling.’ That was just one part, and one very small part.

“But Merle to me is on the same shelf as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Johnny Mercer and some of the great songwriters of our time. As a singer, he is someone who is superlative. He has a voice that is right up there with Sinatra in terms of his ability to get inside the meaning of a song.”

Wolf pitched Haggard on the song “It’s Too Late for Me,” a forlorn ballad.

“It seemed so long ago, when someone loved me so,” Haggard sings, trading lines with Wolf. “And we were both, both so young and so free. I thought I still could see how a good life used to be. And I know it’s too late for me.”

Wolf tracked Haggard down through a mutual friend. He gave a copy of the song to the friend, who passed it on to Haggard.

Haggard’s first reaction was that the song was written by Lefty Frizzell — a huge compliment to Wolf. But he liked it so much, he wanted to record it himself. Wolf begged him not to, and asked him instead to record it as a duet. The experience could not have turned out better, Wolf said.

“Sitting next to Merle and having him do the song, his interpretation and the deepness that he went was beyond anything I expected. I know Merle is great, but when you see a true artist at work “

He paused, and left the sentence unfinished.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Never one who is short of energy, Wolf feels invigorated by the success of the new CD. He’s back on the road, with a band that can handle any of his musical moods. For the current leg of shows, he’s performing with a five-piece: Duke Levine and Kevin Barry on guitars, Marty Ballou on bass, Marty Richards on drums, and Jon Carroll on piano.

He’s also back doing occasional shows with J. Geils, something that seemed unthinkable not too long ago. They’ve done a few reunion shows, and are scheduled to share a sold-out show with Aerosmith at Fenway Park in Boston in August.

Wolf lives in Boston and knows Portland well. He was here last winter to perform a narration role with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and worked with Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering on the new album.

He loves this town, and appreciates the culture and nightlife. He likes the local bookstores, the dining choices and the visually charged gallery scene. A painter himself, he plans to check out the Max Beckmann print show at the Portland Museum of Art if he has time before the gig on Wednesday.

“I just like to go up to Portland and hang,” he said. “I find it to be the kind of city that I like. You’ve got some nice culture going on up there, and I like what the city has done in preserving the waterfront so that it does not look like a tacky tourist trap.”

Wolf considers himself lucky and blessed. He sees himself as a fan of music as much as a musician or singer. He came to Boston to study art and to become a painter. Because of his extra-large personality, he stumbled into a spotlight career as a singer.

Throughout that career, he’s had the chance to meet and perform with many of the musical artists he most admires. With its edgy, after-hours appeal, “Midnight Souvenirs” continues that lucky streak.

“I’ve been able to share the microphone with people like Keith (Richards) and Aretha (Franklin). Those are the things that make it exciting for me,” he said. “As a music fan, the ability to collaborate with these great and talented people, it’s just been a tremendous opportunity for me.

“I kind of look at myself as a voyeur. Through these records, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]