Peter Frampton
at Showcase Live, Patriot Place,
Foxborough, MA
(12 September 2008)

He may have come alive in 1975, but his popularity and musical career are far from over.

Recent insurance ad cameo notwithstanding, Peter Frampton seemed to have disappeared from the general public radar over the past several decades. In person, he demonstrates that he is still one of the best in the business. His performance this evening could easily have been billed as an advanced lesson in rock guitar technique. The souvenir vendor in the lobby was even selling copies of his Best of Peter Frampton tablature book. But before we get to the music, let's talk about the concert hall itself.

Patriot Place is a new creation of the Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots, and is a retail center mushrooming along the edges of the Gillette Stadium parking lot. Economically, it makes sense to drop a year-round revenue-generator into a place that was previously used only on a handful of weekends during football season. Located halfway between Boston and Providence and with easy access to both I-95 and I-495, the site also seems like a great destination for quality entertainment. The jury might still be out on the latter.

Showcase Live is its brand-spanking new event center and is a cabaret-style venue that accommodates fewer than 1,000 customers. While this makes for an "intimate setting" that smacks of the old smoke-filled nightclub scene, it does not come without its challenges. All tickets were labeled as general admission. Table seating was offered on a first-come, first-served basis. (Special spaces were reserved for American Express card holders who paid in that fashion.) As a result, anyone who didn't arrive at least 90 minutes before the show was forced to stand for the duration in the wide expanse in front of the bar. Surprise! Some folks must have been chagrined to learn that the $55 they had given up for each ticket did not guarantee them the chance to sit down. It's one thing to choose to stand up for a concert, and quite another for that to be the sole option. The waitstaff gleefully served gourmet food and quality drink before, during and after the concert, subtly diverting attention. Perhaps only later would one notice a shrinking wallet or worn credit card.

Those of us lucky enough to score seats were crammed into square chairs at square tables. If you didn't know your tablemates before the show, you certainly met them soon enough when your elbows collided with theirs. While Frampton was on stage, his energy stirred many of us to leap to our feet and show our appreciation with shouts, fist pumps and ovations. But to do that, we had to first extricate our bodies from the square chairs and square tables and simultaneously avoid knocking down our neighbors in the process. It was not the best of times, in that respect. Management may need to rethink the floor plan and the types of events they decide to hold in it. The evening was not quite the ultra-classy experience they were aiming for. Word of mouth may begin to warn future patrons of the venue's possible shortcomings, since its website buries the description of its modus operandi a few pages deep.

But music conquers all, and Peter Frampton certainly rose to the occasion.

He and his band of four started off the evening paying homage to the Motown sound, one of Frampton's admitted influences. The driving beat and shout-out of "Shotgun" was soon replaced by the perkier Stevie Wonder tune, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)." The guitarist is involved with the new Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, and he said he was proud to help induct the Funk Brothers into the Hall in its inaugural class of 2007.

Dressed casually in black t-shirt, khaki pants and sneakers, Frampton was ready for a modest workout. Those curly brown tresses are gone, having been replaced by a short haircut of thinning white and accompanied by a goatee of similar hue. Perhaps we could consider him the "Anti-Clapton." While Eric merely leans back stoically and barely moves his magic fingers above the strings, Peter bounds with guitar in hand from one side of the stage to the other, stopping to wear his melodies on his face or to smile broadly at his sound. He's both amusing and tiring to watch. He was already having fun, and he was carting us all along for the ride.

"We're going to go to that vinyl record now," he said, to the crowd's delight. "That vinyl record" was of course Frampton Comes Alive!, recorded in 1975 and released in the U.S. in January 1976. It has since sold millions of copies and is still one of the best-selling live albums, ever. The audience knew it well. Though "Lines on My Face" is a slower song and not one of the better known selections from the album, its performance brought forth the first ovation of the night. Next up was Frampton's first Top 40 charter, "Show Me the Way." Employing his signature talk box, he led the musicians in a slightly more acoustic version of the familiar tune, while everyone in the room helped to sing the lyric. After the cheers and thunderous applause died down, Frampton joked: "That was our hit, and it's all downhill from there." That was far from the case, of course. "All I Want to Be (Is By Your Side)" continued the Alive! theme and required even more audience participation, since the last line of the last chorus was ours alone to sing or shout.

These old songs appeal to us on two fronts. First of all, they have simple verses and memorable refrains. "I want you to show me the way / I want you, day after day." And "Can't you see what it's doing to me / All I want to be is by your side." What could be easier? At their core, Frampton's best-known works are, in fact, a fistful of love songs. But lurking in the middle of each one is a guitar feature that breaks free of the pop-rock mold; one that immediately switches the mood from borderline bubble-gum to bluesy jazz or near-heavy metal. All eyes are on Peter, and his fingers are flying across those Gibson frets. The farther up the neck they go, the bigger his smile grows. This 58-year-old has found his passion and is kind enough to share it with us.

Frampton's latest CD, Fingerprints, earned him his first Grammy, for "Best Pop Instrumental Album" in 2007. So next on the set list were three selections from that recording. "Float" slowed down the pace significantly. As it progressed, Frampton exchanged riffs with his lead guitarist, Australian Adam Lester, until they were in a virtual battle of blazing picks. "Boot It Up" was a march-like tune founded on John Regan's bass line, while Rob Arthur's keyboard sounded like an old Hammond organ. (Now there's something to take you back to the good old days!)

But before Frampton could begin the next song, he had a minor equipment glitch. While one of his road technicians emerged from the darkness to attend to it, Peter said, "This never happens to the Stones, you know." We laughed. He had obviously been jostled out of his practiced concert banter and didn't quite know what to say next. With his roadie working on the loose wire behind him, Frampton turned blankly to the sea of faces in front of him and said, "So. How was your day?" He threatened to go around the room and pose that question to each one of us in person, but the gizmo was quickly fixed before that could happen. Thus were we treated to his instrumental cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." The sole use of blue stage lights added to the ethereal atmosphere created by the music. And at the end, Peter stepped back up to the talk box and vocalized the last chorus.

Up until that point, he had been using a variety of electric Gibson guitars. But Frampton donned a Tacoma acoustic Chief for "Baby, I Love Your Way." Lester went acoustic as well, and we all sang the familiar words to -- once again -- a love song. Performed in "unplugged" fashion, this tune turned out to be one of my favorites of the evening. It was followed by yet another Alive! entry, "(I'll Give You) Money," which featured Lester illustrating his own excellence on guitar before he once again traded leads with his boss.

Just when you thought the music couldn't get any better, Frampton plucked out the opening notes of his masterpiece and very own Variations on a Theme in D, "Do You Feel Like We Do?" Bassist John Regan and drummer Dan Wojciechowski jumped in on the second stanza; and from that moment on, those two supplied the platform for the rest of the merriment to dance upon. Of course, there was strong audience participation on the vocals, especially for the choruses. But it was the adept musicianship that took center stage. The first duel came between Frampton and his lead guitarist. After their brief exchange, Lester conceded defeat and spent the rest of the piece in the background, content merely to tap his palm against his strings. Then it was Rob Arthur's turn to "have it out" in a match between guitar and keys. The resulting interplay was even better than the one that shows up on the original recording. At some point Peter turned to the talk box again, and that distinctive sound elicited even more cheers from the crowd, which by this time was jumping up and hooting and hollering at the end of each individual solo.

In the midst of it all, a fan had the guts to walk up to the edge of the stage and hold out a 12-inch album cover and a Sharpie in Frampton's direction. (This "intimate venue" had no intervening security guards protecting the space between the performers and the diners.) Through the talk box, Peter squawked, "I'm a little busy right now." When she didn't move, he reached down and scribbled over the cardboard sleeve, much to the delight of the audience. Miraculously enough, no one dared to follow her example. But she sure got a treasure, didn't she? She can tell everyone that she got his autograph during his performance of that classic song. That's got to count for something. "Do You Feel Like We Do?" eventually ended in a frenzied climax of crashing cymbals, blinding white lights and deafening audience appreciation. The quintet came out front to take a well-deserved bow and then retreated off stage.

Peter and his colleagues returned for a two-part encore. The first was an instrumental shuffle that I didn't know, but I can attest to the fact that it was just as remarkable as the others we heard earlier. Frampton concluded the evening with a cover of his friend George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It was a stunning choice, both as a testament to the power of the instrument, and to the eternal relevance of the lyric. "I look at the world and I notice its turning / While my guitar gently weeps / With every mistake we must surely be learning / Still my guitar gently weeps." Truer words, etc., etc. Even Peter wiped away a tear as he sang it. And all too soon, he and the rest were gone. The house lights came up, and the waitstaff served up our dinner and beverage checks.

I can't speak for Frampton, but I was exhausted by the end of the show. To have driven home from the concert with the radio on or with a CD popped in -- even one of his own -- would have served to diminish the astonishing performance we had just witnessed in the past 100 minutes. Frampton Comes Alive! itself does not come close to what the man is live. And so I spent the next two hours "with the echoes of the amplifiers ringing in my head," humming those familiar love song choruses to myself and shaking my gray-haired noggin in awe of Peter Frampton's amazing guitarmanship. Without a doubt, he still shows us the way.

by Corinne H. Smith
11 October 2008

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