Monday, September 30, 2013

Humble Pie - Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore: The Complete Recordings - Prepare To Be Amazed

"My God, it just took my breath away," Jerry Shirley says. "You feel like you're setting in the Fillmore East, five or six rows back. In the quiet bits, you could hear a pin drop, and in the loud bits, you can almost feel the room shaking." 
Peter Frampton adds, "It's like a breath of fresh air after listening to one particular version. The beauty of it is that you get three other completely different performances of most of the songs.. And it's great to hear Steve's banter from all of the shows. We've lived with, (imitates Marriott) 'It's been a gas!' for 40-odd years, but now there's more!"

I'll admit to having been intrigued and excited last winter when I first heard that Peter Frampton and Jerry Shirley were going back into the vaults to revisit their classic 1971 live epic, Humble Pie - Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore. What I didn't expect was to be saying a year later that this might be the best sounding live document of a rock show that I've ever heard. But it's just that - the two surviving members of one of rock's greatest road shows have put together amazing evidence with which to proclaim Humble Pie as one of the best live outfits to ever tread the boards.

Recorded on two nights with two shows per evening on May 28 and 29, 1971 at the world renowned Fillmore East, Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore captures all four shows from beginning to end unabridged, which is all the more, given frontman Steve Marriott's rants and charming ravings between tunes. I've always considered the original album to be one of the seventies best live long players, but when I hear the unbridled aggression of the Marshall amps and the howling Les Pauls, the crisp clarity of the vocals, and the incredible rhythm section of Jerry Shirley and bassist/vocalist Greg Ridley, I am astounded to discover what I thought very good turns out to be very great - very, very great.

People often think of Humble Pie as Steve Marriott's band - the diminutive shouter indeed projected a larger than life facade, and had more than enough chops, chutzpah, and star quality to command that possibility, but in reality, the band was born from the desire of Peter Frampton to be taken as more than just 'the face' of British pop. After Marriott recommended the young Jerry Shirley for the drum seat, he found himself in a similar situation, having just left Small Faces, and seeking a new platform for his bristling skills - he asked Frampton for the gig, and the guitarist immediately approved. Drafting Greg Ridley was a stroke of prescient genius, as the bassist not only fit with Shirley like a glove, he also could sing as well as he played, and he played well. If you haven't, I would greatly encourage you to pick up a copy of Jerry Shirley's excellent 2011 book, Best Seat In The House, one of the truly great rock 'n' roll reads - it's often not an easy read, as Humble Pie's story is fulfilled by the phrase, 'Everything that was good about it, was everything that was bad.' But before excess and road stress took them down they shone like the sun itself.

One of the greatest joys of this package is the revelation of just how diverse and accomplished Humble Pie were at a variety of styles and guises - everyone knows their brutal British blues rock savagery as revealed by such hits as I Don't Need No Doctor, but when you hear the various versions of Mac Rebennack's I Walk On Gilded Splinters, the Pie is revealed to have ample doses of psychedelia, soul, and Yardbirdsian guitar histrionics in spades - while this should serve to end all arguments of Frampton's six-string greatness, it also displays what a great guitar team he formed when he accepted Marriott's offer to join. Peter's style is surely in development at this point, and it's a gas to hear his buttery, fluid style emerging from a more 'go-for-the-throat' approach. Another joy is the realization that there were several great singers in the band, and whether harmonizing or trading verses as on their tradition show opener, Four Day Creep, it's a joy to hear the band tossing the ball around as Shirley keeps things glued together with his combination of hard as a hammer backbeats, and his more musical moments on trips across the toms and cymbals.

By the time the original album was released in November of 1971, both Frampton had made his exit from the band to head for solo success, and The Fillmore East had shuttered its doors. It's our good fortune that the tapes from all four nights are in tact - whereas with some bands, you might get stock arrangements and little variation, Humble Pie majored in adventure and invention, reinventing arrangements and turning cover tunes into their own with Marriott's fly by the seat of your pants approach to performing. From Tim Cohan's fantastic liner notes:

"The fact that nothing from the first show made it to the original album wasn't because the band's performance wasn't of the highest quality, Shirley explains. 'The engineers were getting the sounds during the first set,' he says. 'You can do all the run-throughs you like, but until you've got the audience in there, you're never going to get it sounding the way you need it.' The new mixes (by engineer Ashley Shepherd) done for this release have quashed out any audio kinks that may have been present on the tapes of the first show, proving the extraordinary consistency of Humble Pie's commanding playing, singing, and presence."

Yet another bit of the great fun with this project is going through the tunes one by one and hearing different guitar solos, vocal utterances and phrasings, and the sound of Humble Pie inventing their take on the concept of the jam band. Frampton and Marriott's guitar playing is like night and day, but that is much of the beauty - it manages to cross the threshold of the blues and the burgeoning world of hard rock with equal aplomb. One wonders what may have become of this bunch in the absence of cocaine and excessive touring hadn't eventually weakened the bonds that brought them together. There are no shoulda, coulda, wouldas in seventies rock, though, and we're incredibly fortunate to have what we have as evidence of just how high the watermark was in those heady days. Humble Pie was amongst the first of the rock supergroups, and this package makes the case brilliantly.

I am personally very grateful that Peter Frampton and Jerry Shirley decided to take the plunge and issue this release. To my mind, it stands ably and proudly next to The Who's Live At Leeds, and The Rolling Stones Get Your Ya Yas Out as definitive live albums of the era. Frampton made his name with a tremendous live album, and now he can be proud of the fact that his name features prominently on two of the greatest live albums in rock history. When you hear this, you will be amazed - as Shirley says, it does place you in the best seats in the house, and what you're hearing is really even better now that the tapes have been sorted out and maximized.

Four Day Creep - on all four nights it opens the show, and bassist Ridley takes the first verse amongst swaggering guitars and rhythm thunder from Shirley and Ridley's soulful bass playing. Shirley never got the credit due him as a stickman, and his work here drive the band with power and precision - it's no wonder Bonham loved him so. Ridley passes it over to Frampton for the second verse, and while he's not as silken as in his days as a solo star, the roughness of his voice aligns perfectly with the slashing solo that goes down before Marriott steps up to take down the roof, which he does on all four nights.

Marriott's impassioned singing/shouting is matched step for step by Frampton's stinging blues fills that introduce the Willie Dixon classic, I'm Ready, but the band owns it, rearranging the riffs and slamming through the arrangement with abandon and very pure rock 'n' roll joy. Frampton takes the second verse, and he's bolstered by Steve Marriott's primal rhythm riffing. Anyone who ever thought Frampton to be a soft rocker needs to eduacate themselves, and there could be no better place than here - when he staggers skipping through his solo, it's in the same school, and from up the same alley as Page's in the same period. Rock mastery on all fronts - it gets little better than this.

Dr. John recorded I Walk On Gilded Splinters for his first album, but he couldn't have imagined this arrangement - listen close and tell me on which night you can hear the empty liquor bottle roll down the aisle before the drums and bombast arrive! Frampton calls this tune the band's thesis, and he's right. This is huge arena rock mixed with soul, the blues, some psychedelic sprinkles tossed about, and tremendous instrumental interplay throughout. At over 26 minutes every night, this tune alone supplies the listener with more than an hour of ample evidence as to why one would call Humble Pie one of the best live acts in rock 'n' roll history.

Hallelujah (I Love Her So) features the two guitarists trading verses again, and when Ridley joins in the band has as much vocal fire power as they do instrumentally, and their power is prodigious. One wonders what Ray Charles must have thought of this arrangement of his work - I'm guessing Brother Ray dug it.

I Don't Need No Doctor closes out the set, and as the last song of a four night stint it truly shows the band at its best - sheer confidence with every note, every beat. Humble Pie knew exactly how hot their flame burnt, and I can only imagine how much adrenalin was flowing as they wrapped up their stand - Frampton and Marriott attack their axes with ferocity, Shirley hits the kit like he's trying to go right through the heads, and Greg Ridley is always pumping out basslines that suggest just how much Motown and Stax he was listening to in those days.

On Rollin' Stone serves to remind me why I voice displeasure at so much of today's blues rock - this has more fire and passion than a herd of pentatonic SRV worshippers on their best day. The band takes the Muddy Waters classic straight to a sweaty soundcheck filled with cranked hundred watt Marshall full stacks and screaming Gibsons.

Stone Cold Fever is the only band original featured on either night, coming off the band's Rock On album, and it's molten metallic rock that set the stage for later riff rockers like Montrose, who surely must have studied this closely. Humble Pie were regularly opening tours for bands like Grand Funk Railroad, and more often than not decimating the competition with their sheer audacity and mastery of the form.

As I said, much of the joy involved here is being able to sort through different versions and being amazed at the band's ability to approach each night a little differently while working from the same format - the rhythm section of Jerry Shirley and Greg Ridley provided a huge platform from which Frampton and Marriott could display their talents to the fullest without worrying about where they would land when they descended. Humble Pie was a formidable four-headed rock monster, and once again, Frampton and Shirley deserve all due credit for allowing this to see the light of day in what I believe to be the absolute best fashion - were all reissues and compilations done with this much passion and elegance, it would be a beautiful world.

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