I was seventeen when my father taught me the facts of life.
Not those facts, silly! My mother taught me the facts of life right after my first menstrual cycle. By the time I was seventeen I’d already fucked both traditional genders and had started down the dark and delightful path to sexual domination.
No, these were the facts of life about studio bands and live bands.
It must have been a Saturday afternoon after a show, because I was bragging about some band I’d seen the night before with my fake ID and how they really whipped up the crowd. My father smirked and asked, “You never saw J. Geils. Time for a little lesson in crowd-whipping.”
I love my father’s gift for phrasing!
He played me Live: Full House by The J. Geils Band. I’d heard snippets before, but hadn’t paid much attention. I’d always dismissed live recordings, because they never seemed to capture the energy I felt when I heard live music, and often the live versions of my favorite songs ruined them for me.
This was different. The record was high-energy, crowd-whipping, shake-your-fanny fun. I could really feel their energy and the experience was definitely a revelation for me.
“Wow! Thanks for the lesson, Dad,” I said, and started to leave the room.
“The lesson’s not over,” he said, and put on another record.
I sat back down and listened. I knew it was The J. Geils Band because I’d just heard six of the same songs performed live. Those same songs all sounded deader than a dysfunctional dick.
“Oh, my God, what happened to them? Were they sick? Are you sure these are the same guys?”
“Same guys, same songs. Some bands are studio bands, some bands are live bands, some do both. J. Geils is a classic case of a live band. They need the crowd for a kick-start. I bought that album, their first studio album way back when, played it once, and put it in my reject pile to trade it in for something better on my next trip to the record store. Then they showed up at The Fillmore right before it closed, on a bill with Eric Burdon & War. Eric never had a chance. J. Geils blew him away. Same thing happened a couple of years later when I saw them with Loggins & Messina when those guys were at their peak. Buried them alive.”
Until Sonny Landreth came along with Grant Street, Live: Full House was my favorite live album. Yes, I like it even better than Live at Leeds, everyone’s model of a live album. Personal tastes are what they are, but except for Roger Daltrey, I never considered The Who very sexy, and I could have fucked all the guys in the J. Geils Band when they were in their prime. ‘Nuff said!
After the “Are you ready to rock and roll?” intro from the emcee, the band bursts into action with Smokey Robinson’s “First I Look at the Purse,” the sister song to Barrett Strong’s “Money” in the genre of naked greed music. The Contours get credit for the original, a surprisingly sanitized version that doesn’t square with the carnal energy they had displayed on their signature hit, “Do You Love Me?” In the hands of Peter Wolf and company, the raw undertone of the song comes through, hot, heavy and with no apologies for the blatant capitalist exploitation of a broad. Stephen Bladd rocks out on the drums, Daniel Klein beats that bass, and Magic Dick gets into the act with a soulful piece of harp.
Without stopping to breathe, the band proceeds to Otis Rush’s “Homework.” The original is, oddly enough, more famous for its killer horn arrangement than Otis’ guitar or vocal. The J. Geils Band has a lot of fun with it, with Peter Wolf’s intro to the “College of Musical Knowledge” setting the stage for an ironically melodramatic vocal that sounds great and makes you want to laugh at the same time. J. Geils delivers a solid solo, more on the rock side than the blues side, and Seth Justman’s subtle organ adds to the soulful melodrama of the moment.
There’s a brief pause where Peter Wolf introduces the next song as “Take Out Your False Teeth, Mama, I Want to Suck on Your Gums,” but is in fact Big Walter Price’s “Pack Fair and Square.” The original here was sort of a “big band blues number” that sounds like something that Lloyd Price would have been comfortable recording, maybe as a B-side to “Personality.” In J Geils’ hands it’s two-and-half-minutes of accelerated adventure, punctuated with another sweet harp solo by Magic Dick and the always spot-on rough harmonies from drummer Stephen Bladd.
We’ve had two teasers so far, so it’s time to let Magic Dick take center stage with the licking stick. The most influential harmonica piece of its era, “Whammer Jammer” is a flat-out fucking gas, a virtuoso performance combining high energy, sensitive touch and not a little bit of showmanship. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone claimed that Magic Dick was possibly “the best white musician to ever play blues harmonica,” conveniently forgetting about Charlie Musselwhite and primarily revealing that Dave Marsh is a racist asshole. Magic Dick and Charlie were and are great harmonica players, Little Walter and Sonny Terry were great harmonica players, so let’s just enjoy what they gave us instead of comparing them or worrying about what the fuck color they are. If I could only listen to one, of course it would be Little Walter, but that doesn’t take anything away from Magic Dick. I love them both! Even Mary Wells said you could have two lovers!
Stunningly, “Whammer Jammer” proves to be a warmup for the showstopper, the original composition, “Hard Drivin’ Man.” I’ve rarely heard a more exciting performance from anyone, ever. Here all the boys in the band are clicking, with Seth Justman’s piano touches, Steven Bladd’s outstanding drum work and J. Geils’ chicken-picking. But Peter Wolf is the guy who takes control of that crowd, teasing them, sucking them in and driving them into a frenzy. That fabulous passage where he calls out the names of various dances before announcing “We got the Detroit Demolition here for you tonight!” and the band kicks in at full power and high speed, driving that sucker with the foot on the gas pedal all the way to the finish line . . . baby, that’s what’s rock ‘n’ roll is all about!
This is where I think they made a bit of a mistake in the setlist, because there’s no fucking way you can follow that rendition of “Hard Drivin’ Man.” Although they do a fine version of John Lee Hooker’s slow blues number,”Serves You Right to Suffer,” it feels like a bit of a letdown, even with Magic Dick’s exceptional solo, some clever organ work from Seth Justman and J. Geils’ best guitar work on the album. Even when they ramp up the speed on “Cruisin’ for Love,” it still seems we’ve slowed down. Momentum matters, people!
They recapture that momentum with the final song, “Looking for a Love.” Originally recorded by The Valentinos, more famous for giving the world the Womack brothers than anything else, the original is vengefully sexist, for the “love” the singer is looking for is someone who will fix his fucking breakfast and do the fucking housework. Up your ass, dude! Peter Wolf removed most of the sexist lyrics (except he still wanted his breakfast), and though the song isn’t the all-out driver that “Hard Drivin’ Man” is, he’s the guy who rescues it with his dramatic cries of “Somebody help me!” The song does get into fifth gear in the final passage, when Peter and Stephen harmonize on the repeated word, “lookin’,” Magic Dick blows that harp for all it’s worth and the band goes all out to the finish.
Although I never cared for their studio work, and really disliked the stuff from the “Centerfold” period, I would give anything to go back in the time machine and see these guys at their peak. Live: Full House gives us some great musicians whipping the shit out of a crowd in an orgy of R&B-based rock. There’s no meaning, there’s nothing to think about . . . it’s just the magic of no-holds barred rock ‘n’ roll at its best.