Sometimes words come easy. Other nights, I’ll sit in front of my keyboard fruitlessly trying to plunk out a few hundred words to describe what I just saw unfold before me in a vainglorious attempt to communicate whatever transpired before me on a stage twenty or thirty miles from my cherished man cave.
But when you see a Peter Frampton show in its stripped-down, simple style the words come easy. Almost too easy.
Last night, Mr. Frampton brought his grandparents’ parlor; a replica of one of Buddy Holly’s guitars; a Grammy-winning songwriter to the 216, and the results coalesced into one of the best shows I’ve seen yet this year.
Right at showtime Frampton came out and introduced his son Julian and keyboardist Ben Sheridan as the opening act prior to his own lengthy set. Julian, a twenty-something singer/songwriter has the unblemished creamy falsetto of a busker tempered by a genetic connection to his father’s own youthful pipes. In a nutshell, he shares a lot of the same vocal timbre as his old man. While not a fan of nepotism, I can see the junior Frampton going places with his voice and songwriting abilities, even if his dad was on pretty much every magazine cover in the middle part of the Carter administration.
After a short stage reset with a pair of Victorian parlor lamps and an old console radio plunked down center stage, senior Frampton came out in a pork pie hat and trenchcoat. He removed the hat, gingerly placed it on a coat tree, and then removed his coat with a smile. Reminiscent of a trip to Mr. Rogers’ house, he made his way to the radio and took us through a piped-in audio history of his career. His nods to weekends at his grandparents’ home in London must have been the genesis of this set design: it was cozy, got the point across, and let us all know that we were in for a few hours of stories and some stripped-down, acoustic versions of his discography.
Growing up in London in the 1960s Frampton was an acolyte of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane, and other artists that exemplified American popular music. It makes sense that he eventually made his way to the United States; he married and lived in Cincinnati for many years before settling in Nashville, the de facto heartland of American music.
Taking center seat on the stage, flanked by the two lamps, he reminded us that this show would be a “one part (VH1) ‘Storytellers’ and one part (MTV) ‘Unplugged’ kinda night.”
Between tunes, he waxed about growing up in England, his friendship with Ringo Starr (“A Beatle!,” he remarked), and how the Buddy Holly Foundation asked him if he’d like to use a replica of one of Holly’s guitars in his touring and recording.
Frampton’s guitar techs would scurry on to the stage to remove and replace the several guitars that he would use for each song. A six-string would be swapped out for a twelve-string. And then again. And again.
A beautiful polished six-string came out. Frampton held it up for our approval and launched into a story behind this beauty. He told us her name was “Peggy Sue,” and this was the guitar that the foundation had given him. Holly’s widow, in possession of the original guitar, had taken some of the broken frets that had fallen off of various guitars that Buddy had played before his untimely death. She had the frets inserted into the new replicas so the spirit of Holly would be with both the guitar and the musician in possession of the instrument.
In the only off-color comment of the otherwise PG-rated evening, Frampton confessed that “every so often I insert my finger into the hole just to touch that fret.” The audience howled appropriately.
About a third of the way into the set he introduced Gordon Kennedy, his backup guitarslinger/vocalist. Kennedy, a singer/songwriter, is perhaps best known for writing the 1997 Grammy-winning song of the year, the Clapton hit “Change the World.” After playing second fiddle for most of the evening, he took the spotlight and said that he had the honor of introducing Mr. Peter Frampton on backup guitar. He then proceeded to sing the Clapton megahit; his twangy spin breathing new life into the popular tune.
Kennedy remained on stage for the majority of the show. As he evening wound down, Frampton offered his two biggest hits. “Baby, I Love Your Way” sounded great ona pair of dueling acoustic guitars. Upon introducing “Do You Feel Like We Do?” he mentioned that he and Kennedy had a difficult time rearranging the tune for an acoustic set. Missing the “talk box” effects that ties the song to enduring popular culture, the stripped-down version worked beautifully. It was recognizable but a much simpler take on a ’70s classic.
The duo then bowed, left the stage and returned a few moments later for a two-song encore. Relating an experience of an American Coot flying into his bathroom window, Frampton was inspired to write a song about a dazed bird regaining its flight abilities. The theme of caring for one another, even when we might not understand the other’s exact needs, is prevalent in the tune and a perfect way to close things out.
Putting his guitar down and stepping over to an awaiting set of keys, Frampton turned out the lights with a fantastic rendition of “I’m In You.” Although the tune is now over forty years old, it’s aged as gracefully as its writer.
Although he may not have the Gorgeous George locks or the litany of magazine covers any more, Frampton can still light remind people that, oh yeah, we feel like you do.