“Exqueese me? Have I seen this one before? Frampton Comes Alive? Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.”
— Mike Myers in Wayne’s World 2.
“If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”
— A would-be rock manager in the 2000 film Almost Famous, which co-starred Peter Frampton in a small role.
What happens when you’re 61 years old, been a musician all your life, recorded steadily, well-respected among your peers, but are best known for one mega, mega, mega-selling album?
You have a concert very much like the one Peter Frampton is putting on, as part of his current tour.
Frampton shuffled onto the stage Friday night at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, as part of his “Frampton Comes Alive—35 Tour” (or as I dubbed it, the “Frampton Funds His IRA Tour”) looking very different from the images of the young Peter Frampton of 35 years ago being displayed on the video wall behind him.
On the video wall, the audience saw larger than life images of the young Frampton in the mid-‘70s. He was around 26 years of age, his Byronesque blonde locks flowing behind him, wearing Hawaiian shirts open to the (skin and bones) chest, white pants and platform shoes, the very essence of the ‘70s British guitar god pounding the stage in giant American football stadiums. The actual musician on stage last night in front of his younger electronic doppelganger was wearing an olive green T-shirt, bluejeans and white sneakers, his thinning gray hair closely shaved. He looked a bit — and sounded a bit in his between-songs stage patter — like an Oxford accountant just in for a Guinness after mowing his lawn.
His singing and guitar playing still sounded like the Frampton of old, but in a sense, that was part of the problem, which the video wall operator tried to compensate for. Unless you’re a hardcore Framptonite, you know him from about three songs that to this day remain staples on your local FM classic rock station: “Do You Feel Like We Do,” “Show Me The Way,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and maybe “Lines On My Face.” For most of those numbers, the video operator laid back, simply running a title card that said “FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE—35.” It was during the lesser-known songs that Frampton’s video man really earned his pay, running a collection of images of the guitarist from his mid-70s heyday, along with, occasionally, the sort of late ‘60s melting chemicals sorts of imagery left over from Grateful Dead concerts in San Francisco. (Which incidentally, is one of Frampton’s next stops on his tour.)
Guitar aficionados will certainly enjoy Frampton’s show. By my count, he alternated between two Les Pauls (a replica of his mid-‘50s black Les Paul Custom, the guitar most associated with him, plus a reissue 1959 Les Paul sunburst), two Gibson ES-335-style semi-hollowbody guitars, and two or three acoustic guitars. Frampton retains a light and fluid touch on the electric. His solos have always been more melodic and jazzier than many of his ’70s-era peers, though on the heavier rockers, he could definitely deliver the requisite crunch. On acoustic, his use of open-tuned folk-style strumming was a nice accompaniment to his vocals.
My wife felt that Frampton may have a bit of difficulty relating to his audience, particularly during his between-songs banter. If so, that may be due the locale. The stage at Mandalay Bay is one of the more eclectic venues for a pop musician to play. It’s outdoors, with a large pool directly in front of it, so that the first ten rows of the audience, which may very well be all the musicians can see, consist of people in swim trunks, passing a beach ball around between them. Behind the pool is a sandy beach (the sand goes down about eight inches; stick your hand in deep enough, and you’ll quickly hit concrete). Beach towels are available for a nominal fee in the lobby.
Whether or not Frampton could see much of them, his audience was exactly who’d you’d expect, a 40 through 60-something somewhat blue-collar looking crowd, who, like Wayne Campbell, had Frampton Comes Alive issued to them while growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s. A surprisingly large number of tattoos were visible, and not just on the ladies.
There was no opening act, but there was a voice-over of William Shatner asking the crowd not to record the numbers with their iPhones, and reminding them that there were enough shaky videos of “Show Me The Way” on YouTube already. I’m not sure if Shatner’s intro was exclusive to Mandalay Bay, or if it’s being heard on all of the concerts Frampton is performing this year. In any case, it definitely was the most surreal concert intro I’ve witnessed since a video of SCTV’s Count Floyd preceded the Canadian band Rush on one of their mid-‘80s tours.
There was one sucker punch last night, as John Nolte of Big Hollywood would say. In his last number before the encore, Frampton performed (of course) “Do You Feel Like We Do,” and behind him on the video wall (did I tell you this got a workout tonight?) was a clip of his 1996 appearance on The Simpsons. Frampton complained that they couldn’t run the sound with it (but why would they need to? The band sounded great on stage), because “Rupert Murdoch wanted one beeeeellllion dollars for the audio rights.” Frampton then went on to bash Murdoch’s role in the phone hacking scandal that’s enveloped virtually all of Fleet Street, telling the audience that Murdoch would be listening in on their phones, and telling them how to think.
Whatever, Pete. Shut up and sing.
The encore included one of the strangest covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I had ever heard; sounding both fey and metallic simultaneously; a reminder that there’s a reason why the Stones are playing stadiums, and Frampton is starring in infomercials when off the road.
Near the end of the encore, it started to rain, so Nina escaped the crowd and I ducked into the bar for a drink. On the TV behind the bar was ESPN showing a skateboarding competition, just to remind you that the culture of the mid-1970s remains omnipresent.
Have you have heard about this new film Star Wars? The kids are going crazy over it, I hear.