Not unlike Steve Marriott himself, life’s too short. The diminutive singer, who died unexpectedly at the age of 44, was known for his fiery, peripatetic personality, so he’s most likely the last person on earth that could possibly have managed to sit still for this 4-disc reissue of Humble Pie’s cornerstone Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore LP. The phonographic record may have originally been invented precisely to capture the live music concert and the like, but four twenty-seven-minute versions of Dr. John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” is enough to make a man scream – and not in that utterly fantastic Steve Marriott sort of way.
Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore was Humble Pie’s 1971 document of their act as it stood at a particular crossroad in its history, before guitarist Peter Frampton left to go solo and as he, as well as the band, stood on the cusp of bigger things. In its modest, meat-and-potatoes way it was a monumental live album. It wasn’t as splashy as Frampton Comes Alive (which eventually followed it) nor as dreary as The Stones’ Get Your Ya-Yas Out (which preceded it). It was more like a standard-bearer from a group that nobody knew had a banner to wave at all.
The album was recorded over the course of four shows in two nights, and a cursory glance at the liner notes reveals that the original choice takes boiled down to this: they principally grabbed the first half of Saturday’s second show and grafted the second half of Friday’s second show on to it. Simple as that. Back in the day, editing choices were less free-wheeling, and the editing room floor was still designed for depositing the less thrilling remnants of said recordings onto it.
In a nutshell, here are the highlights of what can be gleaned from a careful, four-plus hour listening to the complete document of all four shows:
- The original on-site engineers were unhappy with the sound quality of Friday’s first set, which — despite the skillful 2013 remix — remains muddier than one would want it to be. Clearly they tinkered continuously over the course of the event, and the sound quality of the recordings steadily improves.
- As if we didn’t know it already, Steve Marriott was a sturdy, industrial-strength fireplug of a frontman and, in a live setting, an inventive second guitarist and harmonica player. And while everyone who ever enjoyed the original release of this album remembers him exclaiming, “It’s really been a gas!” at the end of the night, little did they know that they were missing out on his exuberant “I got a new axe – it’s too much! It’s gonna make me rock on, man!,” which opened the shows – for whatever that’s worth.
- Peter Frampton was far less slavishly devoted to retreading and memorializing his guitar parts than one might expect. For a hard-touring outfit like Humble Pie, he was surprisingly spontaneous. If you have a near-limitless capacity to enjoy another man’s riffing, this may be for you.
- While the boxed set would no doubt like to make the case that bassist Greg Ridley and drummer Jerry Shirley possessed otherworldly and astonishing skills, they were more like a good, solid rhythm section.
Beyond these observations, it’s down to splitting hairs or trying to assimilate too much material for no particular rhyme or reason. Starting at Disc One and playing this collection through to the end is just preposterous, no matter how durable the music might be. Even though the argument can be made that the four versions of each song here display unique and reasonably varied performances, didn’t consumers pay the first time around for the critical choices to be made for them? I can’t envision a living room full of pony-tailed sixty-year-olds today deciding that tonight was the night to indulge in Saturday night’s first set as opposed to Friday night’s second set or vice-versa. How would they know and why should they care?
The answer is that they shouldn’t and they won’t, which brings the whole discussion full circle and only serves to highlight the beauty of the original release, which still stands as one of the most satisfying live concert albums of the era and a real bedrock of ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the record industry’s modern-day impulse to go dumpster-diving and lovingly box up scraps in some kind of gift wrap so that they can be desired and consumed all over again to the tune of $37.24 (with free shipping!), I don’t question the motives of the people at Omnivore Records who endeavored to bring you this extravaganza. I’m given to understand that they are true fans of the music. They just presumed that if you liked something, you’ll certainly like more of it a whole lot more.
But as Steve Marriott no doubt knew, sometimes short is sweet.