“Peter is such a dynamic player. So kinetic, always in motion like a boxer, weaving and punching.”
–Dave Tilley, music producer, about band Peter Lamb & the Wolves
by David Menconi
photographs by Geoff Wood
It’s fitting that Peter Lamb and the Wolves, a party band’s party band, first formed to provide the soundtrack to a celebration.
Back in 2009, the manager of Humble Pie in downtown Raleigh asked Peter Lamb to assemble a band to play at a party in honor of incoming President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “I put together the Wolves,” Lamb says, “and we’ve been there at Humble Pie ever since, two Wednesdays a month.”
Along with serving as Humble Pie’s unofficial house band for most of the past decade, Lamb and company have played countless gigs beyond its friendly confines, from the Hopscotch Music Festival to most every club in the area. The Wolves have also released three very fine albums. They’re in-demand for the teaching workshops and clinics they play at public and private schools around the Triangle. And four years after that first gig, they got a nice upgrade: an official performance slot at the second Obama inauguration in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
‘Whatever it takes’
The quintet has had pretty much the same lineup for most of its existence: Lamb on saxophone, his brother Paul Rogers on trumpet, Mark Wells on piano and vocals, and a rhythm section of bassist Pete Kimosh and drummer Stephen Coffman. Everyone in the group is a North Carolina native except for the San Francisco-born Lamb, who moved to Raleigh at age 8.
Ask just about anybody familiar with the Wolves to describe them, and the word “fun” will invariably come up. Whether playing clubs or classrooms, it’s rare for them to encounter an audience they can’t win over. But of course, it helps that they’re willing to drop the likes of the soundtrack theme to Spiderman into their set list, rendered with a cool swing groove.
“I can’t tell you how many gigs we’ve played where we did something like the Super Mario Brothers theme, and all of a sudden the audience was with us,” says Wells, Lamb’s longtime co-pilot in the Wolves. “We’re kind of a ’50s and ’60s R&B band with some jazz. That’s our crossover point. And we have to be willing to do whatever it takes to engage an audience, whether it’s John Coltrane or some video-game theme. The great thing about Peter is, if he likes something and gets excited, he just goes for it.”
Prior to the Wolves’ formation, Lamb put in seven years playing saxophone with Countdown Quartet, another party band whose lineup included members from local legends including Squirrel Nut Zippers, Whiskeytown, Dag, and 6 String Drag. Countdown had just wound down when Lamb got the word about that Humble Pie party. His first call was to Wells, a versatile musician who has provided piano accompaniment for everything from Carolina Ballet to hip-hop DJ Apple Juice Kid’s Remix Project.
Early on, Lamb and the Wolves played it pretty straight, sticking to the great American songbook of jazz standards. But that restraint didn’t last long, mostly because Lamb isn’t the type to hold back. A whimsical sort with a natural exuberance in manner as well as playing, Lamb is given to over-the-top pronouncements like what he told a News & Observer interviewer a few years back: “We want to spread our music around like venereal disease!”
It wasn’t long before Lamb was writing original material and also changing up the cover choices to take the music into more oddball directions. His approach has been particularly effective for the band’s teaching gigs at schools. “To get kids interested in Coltrane, I have a video-game tune from The Legend of Zelda that I combine with a tune off of his Crescent album,” Lamb says. “It really gets their attention. So yeah, we have little tricks to get people aware of things, make them fit together in ways you wouldn’t expect. Another thing I do a lot is arrange Russian folk songs with a New Orleans groove – which absolutely works great, believe it or not. Really plays off the whole ‘Peter and the Wolf’ thing with our name, too.”
Lamb is practically incapable of playing saxophone while standing still, which makes for a lively stage performance but a recording challenge. Dave Tilley, who has produced all three of the group’s albums, says that recording the Wolves requires a lot of creativity as well as technical flexibility.
“Peter is such a dynamic player,” Tilley says. “So kinetic, always in motion like a boxer, weaving and punching. Whenever I work with him, the goal is to capture what he’s doing, which isn’t just standing perfectly still in front of the microphone. I want to get all the goodness he’s putting out.”
There is goodness aplenty on Lamb and the Wolves’ latest album, 2016’s Carolina Tiger Milk. Recorded in the upstairs room at Lamb’s former workplace Marsh Woodwinds (he’s now a partner in the Flying Squirrel Music woodwind repair shop), Carolina Tiger Milk is an all-star super-session featuring some of the best of North Carolina’s roots, jazz, and blues players – The Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins, Sidecar Social Club singer Lisa Wood, bluesman Bullfrog Willard McGhee and even the legendary James Brown sideman Maceo Parker.
“I’m really proud of Carolina Tiger Milk,” Lamb says. “It’s not jazz so much as an album with some jazz – and also funk, a French waltz, a classical piece. There are 27 players on it and the whole point was to show off all the talent that’s here in North Carolina. Maceo especially was incredible. He came up from Kinston and was the first to arrive, the last to leave, and a total gentleman the whole time. Dressed to the nines, too. He played the very last solo on the record and it’s gold. If I never get to do another record, there’s always that.”
Still, onstage is the Wolves’ primary, best medium. Luckily, they play out enough that if you don’t see them, it will be your fault and not theirs.
“The Triangle really is a great, great place to be a musician,” Lamb says. “There’s so much amazing talent around here, and great audiences, too. I rarely have to leave. We’ve got four gigs this week, all here. I love that.”