The double live album was a staple of rock and roll in the early years of the 1970s, and many of those recordings were captured from the stage of the Fillmore East. From the Allman Brothers to Frank Zappa and the Mothers, the Fillmore East in New York City was the place to record a band in front of an enthusiastic crowd. So it made sense that Humble Pie, an English super group with a sizzling live reputation but less than stellar US sales, would choose that venue for their own chance to bottle the lightning that had evaded them in the studio. They recorded four shows over two nights at the end of May 1971, and from those recordings crafted the double live album Performance - Rockin’ the Fillmore. Released that November, it was the breakthrough Humble Pie had hoped for, reaching #21 on the Billboard charts and Gold sales status from the RIAA. For over 40 years, that double album has been the definitive document of the original Humble Pie lineup of Steve Marriott, Peter Frampton, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley. Now Omnivore Recordings has released a box set of those four complete shows and displaced that prior construction as the pinnacle of the original Humble Pie.
When they left the studio for the stage, Humble Pie became something different altogether. Freed of the strictures of three minute long radio-friendly material, the four musicians came into their own. No longer was it Frampton extracting pop melodies from Marriott’s heavy R&B sensibilities, or Marriott dragging Frampton into a blues framework on a track-by-track basis. As this recording shows, their live partnership wasn’t a capitulation of one’s style to serve the other’s needs. It was two artists constantly pulling away from each other, with the tension of their inherently different approaches held in equilibrium by the rhythm section of Ridley and Shirley. Jerry Shirley’s ability to both pound heavily when playing blues and to sit off the beat for a jazzier feel allowed him to buttress whichever guitarist had stepped to the fore. Greg Ridley’s bass playing was limber yet solid like Shirley’s drums, and alternated that support role with the drummer like one instrument. Their fluid approaches to rhythm let Frampton and Marriott follow where their muses took them without sacrifices from either frontman.
Though there isn’t much variety in the songs played over the four sets (understandable, given the need to cut and splice between different shows for the planned album), that doesn’t mean the performances of those compositions don’t differ from set to set. Sometimes, it’s merely an unrepeated ad-lib from Marriott or a slightly miffed return to a full band chorus from one of Frampton’s solos; more often, there are changes in approach and feeling that lead to substantially different takes. For example, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”, the Dr. John cover that is the heart and soul of each show, is entirely different not in structure or length but in the way the band plays it. The solos are in the same order and places and last roughly the same amount of time, and the subtle nod to Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” appears at the same point in each recording. In the first set they’re aggressive yet unsure, and the result is a puffed out, chest-beating version of the song, more power than precision. That take is loud not lyrical.
The second is more comfortable, all jitters gone and worries laid aside. They sound proud of their precision, and though the power’s still there, it’s contained. This is a band that knows just how good they can be, and knowing they had reached that peak. The third version, from the first set on the second night, is nearly as tight, but the band dialed back the fury another notch to allow for greater elasticity. This sounds like a band listening to each other, where vocal lines, guitar licks, or drum fills all prove to be launching pads for the next piece of improvisation. By the last set, Humble Pie knew they had at least two excellent versions of the song to choose from for the eventual album. There is no pressure to achieve greatness. The result is the most laid back, lyrical, fluid and fun rendition of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” they recorded. Unsurprisingly, this final version is the one they chose for Performance - Rockin’ the Fillmore back in 1971. It’s sublime. All 27 minutes of it.
Twenty seven minutes. That’s the elephant in the room, and one that must be addressed. This box set is a mere 22 songs, and lasts just a bit over four hours. Each show is five or six songs, lasting between 50- and 70-odd minutes. The music is not intricate suites, broken into many parts, each with huge compositional differences or changes that keep the ear and mind constantly alert. It’s simple blues-rock taken to epic lengths through multiple solos. This is excess at its most basic, where each member stepped to the front and had their moment in the spotlight. That the audiences sat in rapt attention, cheering each bent note or soulful wail, seems odd in this day and age. But that very fact is what makes this so compelling. It actually deserves and rewards that kind of attention, the close listening that seems antithetical to an increasingly distracted and distracting world. It may be an artifact of a bygone era, one that in all reality lasted only a few short years, but it’s one of the best.