Today, 105 Second Avenue in New York City looks inconspicuous enough, housing a branch of a savings bank. But for just over three years, between March 1968 and June 1971, that address was home to Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. The grandiose 2,830-capacity venue built in 1925 as a Yiddish theatre was sadly demolished around 1996, having survived transformations into The New Fillmore East and the landmark gay disco The Saint. Though the building no longer exists, with the bank occupying its former lobby and apartments built on the site of the auditorium, much of the music played during its days as The Fillmore East has endured on record. One of the most celebrated albums recorded at the Fillmore was Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. Recorded in May 1971, just weeks before the venue’s demise, Performance was a double-album of electric blues fury, with just seven lengthy tracks spread over four sides. It remains a fiery, visceral live document of the quartet in concert, and it’s just gotten better – four times better. The new 4-CD box set from Omnivore Recordings includes all four of the band’s complete performances at the Fillmore East from which the original LP sequence was derived: two shows on Friday, May 28 and two more on Saturday, May 29.
One of the first bands for whom “supergroup” was an accurate appellation, Humble Pie brought together three great vocalist-instrumentalists – Steve Marriott of The Small Faces (rhythm guitar), Peter Frampton of The Herd (lead guitar) and Greg Ridley of Spooky Tooth (bass) – with drummer Jerry Shirley of the lesser-known The Apostolic Intervention. The resulting band was a four-piece combo with power to spare. Performance followed four studio albums, none of which captured the total majesty of the band’s full-throttle stage act. When manager Dee Anthony (whose diverse client list also included Peter Allen and Joe Cocker) suggested a live album, the band jumped at the chance.
It’s easy to see why in Omnivore’s deluxe presentation. Not only were the band members some of the most exciting instrumentalists on the blues-rock scene, but the Fillmore East itself created a certain frisson that translated particularly well to live discs. It’s no wonder that Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all recorded famed albums there. In fact, Hendrix’s frequent collaborator Eddie Kramer originally recorded the concerts. Electricity surges through all four sold-out sets which originally occurred on the bill between opening act Fanny and headliner Lee Michaels. These four muscular sets are a potent trip back to the days when a band could bravely and somewhat self-indulgently transform a 7-minute song like Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” into a jam more than three times that long – and captivate an audience in doing so. Each set is presented in complete form, including the enjoyably cheerful between-song banter.
After the jump, we’ll take a closer look!
The original Performance completely overlooked the first set. Based on the evidence here, however, it wasn’t for lack of quality. That LP release drew three songs each from the Friday late show (“Hallelujah (I Love Her So),” “Rollin’ Stone” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor”) and Saturday late show (“Four Day Creep,” “I’m Ready,” and “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”) plus one from the Saturday early show (“Stone Cold Fever,” the band’s lone original composition played during the two-night stand). The setlists were largely similar, though, over the four shows. “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was played at all but the first show on Saturday; it was replaced that evening by the only appearance of “Stone Cold Fever.” “Rollin’ Stone,” written by McKinley Morganfield a.k.a. Muddy Waters, was played only at the late shows. Ida Cox’s “Four Day Creep” (transformed beyond recognition by the band), Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,””Gilded Splinters” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah” were played at all four performances.
A sheer, unbridled ferocity marks each set, kicking off with the opening cry of “I want you to love me” in “Four Day Creep.” Based on the audience response captured, the audience had no problem honoring that wish! Running through these blues favorites with a voice steeped in soul, Steve Marriott sounds like a man possessed. The crashing, heavy power chords introduced on “Creep” are the foundation of the songs, yet Frampton on lead guitar also maintains a melodic yet forceful style. Completing the one-two punch each night with “Creep” was “I’m Ready,” adapted by Humble Pie from Willie Dixon’s original. Marriott introduced the song each night with throat-shredding, audience-pleasing shouts: “I hope you’re ready! Are you ready?” The answer, needless to say, was inevitable.
The nightly tour de force, of course, was “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” which was written by the Good Doctor (John) for his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris. Ominous, atmospheric notes open the song, ceding to an extended showcase of the interplay and improvisational virtuosity of the band members including Marriott on his wailing harmonica. The blueprint remained the same over the four sets, with the rendition clocking in at roughly 27 minutes’ length each time. Shirley’s unrelenting driving beat combined with Ridley’s confident bass and Frampton’s searing lead guitar for an extravagant, elongated blast of the blues that was thankfully devoid of pretensions. “Rollin’ Stone,” the song that gave Mick, Keith and co. their name, is expectedly torrid on its two appearances, not to mention long: 15+ minutes on Friday night and over 12 on Saturday. Marriott sounds particularly liberated, enjoying his freedom from the psych-pop style of the later Small Faces, and he is also effective in the twin-guitar attack with Frampton. A tough, crunchy riff propels Humble Pie’s “Stone Cold Fever,” from 1971’s Rock On.
A bit of lightness colors the sets with the appearance of “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” The Ray Charles classic is still heavy in the hands of the Pie, but also spirited and even rollicking, with Marriott joined by Frampton on vocals. Old favorites like “Walk Right In” and “Fever” were even deftly weaved into the nightly “Hallelujah.” There’s also a palpable sense of fun on the three performances of another Charles staple, “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” The song, penned by Nickolas Ashford and Valarie Simpson with their then-frequent writing partner Jo Armstead, was just one more example of how the band reinvented familiar tunes from the inside out, wringing every last drop of emotion in the process.
For the label’s first multi-CD box set, Omnivore has pulled out all the stops. Performance is housed in a small but sturdy box with a flip-top lid, containing each disc in an individual sleeve. The exemplary 20-page booklet includes a new essay by Tim Cohan (to think, the original ticket prices for the concerts were $3.50-5.50!) and track-by-track notes with numerous new reminiscences by the two living members of Humble Pie, Frampton and Shirley. The pair also co-produced the box, which has been handsomely designed by Greg Allen and overseen by Cheryl Pawelski and Bill Levenson. All four shows have been newly remixed with great clarity and crispness by Ashley Shepherd and optimally remastered by Bob Ludwig.
Peter Frampton departed Humble Pie before the original LP release of Performance, and the band soldiered on until 1975. Shirley and Marriott reunited in 1980 under the Humble Pie name for two more albums, and in 2002, Shirley and Ridley joined together for one more record. Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings captures the original band at its most untamed. It’s a testament to the powerful vocals of the late Steve Marriott and the rootsy bass of the departed Greg Ridley, and also to the enduring strength of Peter Frampton in full rocker mode and Jerry Shirley on thunderous drums. With this stellar excavation of four remarkable nights of hard ‘n’ heavy blues-rock and boogie, Omnivore won’t be eating humble pie anytime soon.