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Review: Humble Pie, “Performance – Rockin’ the Fillmore: The Complete Recordings”

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Humble Pie - PerformanceToday, 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! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 30, 2013 at 09:39

Review: “A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection”

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On its surface, it seems kind of crazy to make a compilation of tunes from A&M Records. There are plenty of labels with clearer narrative arcs: Columbia was a hotbed for melodic singer-songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s, from Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel to Springsteen and Billy Joel. Burgeoning soul fans started with Motown and graduated to Stax or Atlantic, depending on their region. ZTT was the place for avant-garde dance-pop/rock in the ’80s, much like Elektra was the source for dreamy West Coast folk-pop.

A&M, on the other hand, was an artist, trumpeter Herb Alpert, and a record promoter, Jerry Moss. Two guys working out of a garage. That’s the kind of narrative fit for Apple, not a label that facilitated everything from jazz-pop, British rock and New Wave to polished R&B and even a smidgen of grunge. In a weird way, the lack of narrative is almost a worthy narrative in and of itself – and it’s what makes A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection (A&M/UMe B0016884-02) a potentially vital compilation for your library.

And yet, the set misses the mark, obscuring that free-form narrative with a presentation that suggests uncertainty, as if this whole “A&M 50” venture was even worth it in the first place.

That’s not to say the set is bad. Remember, A&M doesn’t have the kind of market share a Motown might, so the deck is already stacked against the concept. But from a content perspective, A&M 50 excels. The three themed discs – “From AM to FM,” “A Mission to Rock” and “Soul, Jazz and More” – bring some sort of cohesion to the proceedings.

Disc One focuses mostly on the early years of the label, when Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and the Carpenters were the stars of the A&M roster. Gradually, while the demeanor and ideology of pop artists would change, going from earthy (Cat Stevens, Joan Baez) to ineffectual (The Captain & Tennille, Chris de Burgh) to a mix of both (Amy Grant, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow), that devotion to pop hooks and inoffensive, of-the-moment production was always there.

Disc Two is where things get interesting. The (mostly British) rock scene A&M tapped into not only yielded some of the biggest hits on the label (The Police, Styx, Bryan Adams, Peter Frampton) but kept that smorgasbord mentality of A&M alive. This was a label that hosted guitar-heavy hitters like Procol Harum and Free alongside electronically influenced, wordplay-loving tunesmiths like Joe Jackson, Squeeze and Split Enz (all among the era’s most criminally underappreciated acts!). The two-song transition that closes this disc, Soundgarden‘s “Black Hole Sun” and Sting‘s “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” are whiplash-inducing in their dissimilarity, and easily the point where you might agree with this point of view – that variety was the whole point of A&M Records.

The third disc amps up the eclecticism even more. A&M wasn’t content to just give you “soul music.” There were your classics old (the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles & The Checkmates, Ltd.) and new (a 1991 cover of The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” by Aaron Neville); real jazz (Jobim, Getz, Quincy Jones); some funky stuff (Billy Preston, The Brothers Johnson) and a few heaping helpings of poppy R&B (Jeffrey Osbourne, Janet Jackson, late-period Barry White). The disc earns its “and more” distinction by offering danceable tracks like “Crazay” by Jesse Johnson (formerly of The Time) and “Finally” by CeCe Peniston (unusually presented in its original album version, one of the few idiosyncratic decisions as far as which versions of songs appear on the compilation).

A&M 50 offers some fun discs, which is great. So what’s the problem? The set comes in a four-panel digipak, with a picture of Alpert and Moss and a brief essay (which nobody is credited with writing). The writer and producer credits are consigned to the inner panels, with little information outside of that. It’s very plain, and altogether a bit lacking. While a full-on box set approach might have been a tough sell, a double-sized digipak with a nicely-designed booklet should be less of a luxury and more of a commonality with sets like these.

Ultimately, it’s that lack of “luxury” which fails to elevate A&M 50 past a “Now That’s What I Call Three Sampler CDs from a Particular Label!” level. This was a fun idea that demanded better execution. Alpert and Moss may not have had a unifying goal when they founded that label out of their garage, but they had something worth showing off. It’s a shame that this concept didn’t quite get its due here.

Written by Mike Duquette

September 6, 2012 at 15:56