HUMBLE PIE “Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore”

Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore

Producers: Humble Pie
Availability: CD, iTunes, AmazonMP3, Spotify

Peter Frampton was reunited this week with something he never thought he’d see again in this lifetime: the black Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar that was immortalized on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive. 32 years ago, the cargo plane carrying his equipment back from a South American tour crashed in Venezuela, and the instrument, like the rest of Frampton’s gear, was believed lost forever until a couple of enterprising fans in the region .

Writing about Frampton Comes Alive in commemoration of this great reunion of man and guitar would have been too easy, too obvious. It is a great, classic album, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Instead – as obvious as it might be to some diehard Frampton fans – we’ll use this album, Frampton’s last with Humble Pie and more relevantly, the album on which he is believed to have first played the guitar in question!

Frampton had been using a semi-hollowbody guitar during the band’s stand at the Fillmore [stories differ as to whether it was actually during the time when this album was recorded, or a previous three-night stand at the venue, but we’ll go with the former for our purposes] when he started having some feedback issues due to the peculiarities of the venue’s stage. A fan named Mark Mariana approached Frampton the next evening and offered him the use of his black Gibson Les Paul to solve the problem. Frampton tried the guitar, liked it, and offered to buy the guitar off of Mariana after the show, but was rebuffed… Mariana actually one-upped Peter and gave him the guitar.

What a guitar, and what a guitarist! Steve Marriott’s vocals might have been intended to be front and center, but it’s Frampton’s lead work throughout this double album that is the star of the show for me. As easy as some people might easily have dismissed Frampton for the image that was put forth by him and his management around the time of Comes Alive and his studio follow-up I’m In You (both Frank Zappa and Cheech & Chong poked fun at him for this – the former with his song “I Have Been In You”, the latter in a skit on their penultimate album Let’s Make a New Dope Deal), it’s understandable why it’s easy to forget that Frampton is one hell of a guitarist.

The recording itself is quite intimate sounding despite the power of the band and the acoustics of the venue – you can literally hear someone drop a beer bottle at the beginning of the band’s side-long cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, and you can also hear snippets of conversation between band members and members of the audience. But again, it’s Frampton’s playing that is the main focus, as far as I am concerned, on this album. There are a few times throughout the album’s sequence where the playing threatens to devolve into blooze-rawk boredom rather than blues/rock ecstasy, but those moments are rare. Mind you, this album was made at the tail-end of a time period when rock bands were usually expected to not play three-to-four minute pop songs, and the Fillmore was a venue were the audience was very receptive to such excursions.

An incident (probably anecdotal) where Marriott had handed the band’s manager what was supposed to the final mix of the album only to be told afterward “Great… but where’s the audience?” probably didn’t help matters – Marriott  had apparently been a little too out of it on “chemical refreshment” (to borrow a Zappa-ism) to realize he had erroneously mixed the audience reactions out of the mix at first.

The album ended up being Humble Pie’s first gold album in the States, helped by a cover of Ray Charles’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor” (one of two of the Genius’s songs covered here – “Hallelujah I Love Her So” being the other) being excerpted, edited to fit on a 45, and serviced to radio. But by that time, Frampton had already walked away from the band, black Les Paul at his side – him and Marriott had bumped heads one too many times – and a few years later, of course, he’d immortalize that guitar on another double live album for A&M in another San Francisco venue.

[Advance warning for Spotify users: Two of the songs, including the aforementoned “Guilded Spinters”, aren’t available on the service. Not Spotify’s or even A&M’s fault – probably that of the song’s publishers, since they’re both covers. My apologizes in advance.]