Concert Review: The J. Geils Band, Toots and the Maytalls (Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York, July 11, 1999)

While the merits of the J. Geils Band’s studio catalog have always been suspect, there have been few folk who can (or will) deny the visceral wallop that the Boston-bred sextet threw down in their ’70s salad days. And it should come as no surprise accordingly that when the group reconstituted this spring after a 17-year hiatus, they didn’t head into the studio to lay down some thoughtful new tracks, but instead took to the road to roar through what they dubbed “the Great American House Party.”

Which was an apt title if last Sunday’s show at SPAC was indicative of the entire tour, which is pretty much a given with an outfit as tight (still), energetic, frenetic and eager to please as the J. Geils Band were. And are. Which means, of course, that they didn’t spend the evening playing obscure B-sides or marginal album cuts, but instead offered most of the original and cover tunes that made Full House (1972), Blow Your Face Out (1976) and Showtime! (1982) three of the most entertaining live albums ever recorded.

And they played those songs as if the past 17 years (not to mention the acrimonious departure of singer Peter Wolf after the group’s pop breakthrough with Freeze Frame in 1981) hadn’t happened. Wolf moved, grooved, rapped, ranted and otherwise revived his famed “Wolfa Goofa Mama Toofa” persona from all those years ago, looking much the same as he did back then, proving once and for all that he must have signed a pact with Satan that included not only eternal youth, but marriage to Faye Dunaway as well.

Come to think of it, though, most of the band must have signed that pact, since bassist Daniel Klein, harmonicat Magic Dick and guitarist J. Geils looked eerily similar to their younger selves as well, only with two pairs of sunglasses fewer between them. And Magic Dick still didn’t look like he had enough to do on stage. Keyboardist and principal songwriter (with Wolf) Seth Justman did look different however (although not necessarily older), having shaved his once-dark hair down to the scalp and dyed it white. Go figger.

Of course, drummer Stephen Jo Bladd had changed too, so much so that he wasn’t even there, having been replaced completely for this tour by Rollins Band drummer Sim Cain, who sounded swell but looked a bit too serious for the job. (You would be too if you’d spent as much time with Henry Rollins as he has, I’ll bet). Cain also couldn’t handle the high, sweet harmony vocals that Bladd once offered, necessitating the addition of a pair of obligatory swivel-hipped, tambourine-slapping back-up singers, who swayed on an over-loaded stage right with the three-man Uptown Horns.

Interestingly, however, that visual and aural overload was almost balanced by the keyboard heroics of Seth Justman at the opposite end of the stage. Justman has taken huge heat over the years (rightly or wrongly) for being the straw that broke the Wolf’s back, but last Sunday night he put on an instrumental performance that was every bit as electrifying in its own way as was the one offered by his goofy, charismatic singer. And if there’s but one revelation to be gleaned and shared from this traveling nostalgia show, then I’m happy to let it be that one — since the evening’s other revelation (that a living legend like Toots Hibbert doesn’t deserve the indignity of playing a SPAC warm-up set) wasn’t one that I was particularly pleased to experience.

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