I can’t rightly remember how I caught wind of the concert, but yet here I was: off to see Peter Frampton and Steve Miller on a Tuesday night at the former Molson Amphitheatre (now more ignominiously named the “Budweiser Stage”). The venue lies at the outskirts of the ill-fated Ontario Place on the side closest to downtown; its nine thousand seats (putatively sixteen thousand when the lawn is open) are served by a single gate that pedestrians access by crossing Lakeshore Boulevard by footbridge or crosswalk.
Most of the people making this trek were in no discernible rush, but I was not one of them. I needed enough time to collect my ticket and my strong drink before locating my seat near the front of the stage. With these tasks accomplished quickly, I filed towards the bowl of blue seats that fanned out and gradually upward from the stage below. With a beer in each hand and my ticket slotted gingerly between two fingers, I proceeded to where I thought I needed to go. About halfway down the bowl I was told that my seat was on the floor, a delightful fact I had somehow remained unaware of until that point.
An usher showed me to my seat: a black-padded foldout chair arrayed tightly amongst dozens of others in neat rows, with its number scrawled onto the underside and chalk markings on the floor to mark the rows. I was slightly right of centre stage, maybe thirty feet back, and I was beyond content. I had thought little of shelling out a fair amount of money to get a good seat—live gigs are something of a rare treat when you’re a fan of bands that mostly had their heyday in the ‘70s—but, upon seeing my proximity to the stage, I felt pleasantly vindicated.
Ensconced in my foldout chair, with several empty seats all around me and the roadies still flitting about onstage, I took stock of my surroundings: there were many seats beyond my immediate area that were not yet filled, and those that were hosted occupants at least three decades my senior, on average. A crowd so made up portended a sedate affair by concert standards—or at least more mellow, more relaxed one—and it did indeed start out that way.
My hasty entrance turned out to be with good cause. Frampton was slated to come onstage at 7pm; he arrived at about 7:01, making this the most punctual show I had ever been to outside of Vegas.
It was Pete who had specifically drawn me to this night’s gig. I had seen him play live once before, in this very place, some five or six years ago, and he had left me dumbstruck. Knowing him and his music only by his live album—that mid-seventies pop staple that he is still cashing cheques for today—I was unprepared for his truly artful guitar playing.
When he launched into his opening number many people were still finding their seats, and this continued well into his set. However, these tardy concertgoers could be excused for making the same mistake I had and judging the man by the only thing he is known for. It is fair to say that Frampton has that one album, which itself has a scanty three hits: “Show Me the Way,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and the iconic “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
But what Old Pete lacks in number ones, he makes up for in pure talent; it is no exaggeration to call him a virtuoso. He may be a tad aged and scrawny, and indelibly tied to pop music, but, as one of my fellow concertgoers marveled, “he can rock the fuck out.” Indeed, whether playing electric or acoustic, he can make it cry or sing or do anything in between—which is to say nothing of his masterly command of the talk box.
He meanders about the stage, winding his way rightward from his spot at centre-left to jam with his wingman guitarist, then on to his keyboard player on the far right, flashing the audience his wry guitar face as he goes.
Pete may be the most unpretentious classic rocker there is: with his neat button-down shirt, blue jeans, and balding head of white hair and matching goatee, he looks like every middle-aged bloke at every British pub. And his rapport with the audience, the affable ease with which he speaks to us, makes you feel like you’re sitting across from him over a pint. He has such a subtle, friendly British way about him as he chats to the crowd. He takes us through his first meeting with Steve Miller—“He says it was ’67, I say it was ‘70”—and, later, the inspiration for his latest single—“A large bird,” he starts, adumbrating the imaginary bird with his hands, “it was no sparrow, flew into my window and knocked itself out and fell onto my balcony.
“It’s a bit of a long story, so I’m not going to tell it all, but I saved the bird!” he declares with a mock triumphalism, a fist raised skyward. He then sets up to play this new song, the aptly named “I Saved the Bird,” as he beseeches us to make lots of noise when the tune is done, even though we don’t know it. Of course, many of us oblige him.
In between all of this chatter, there is the music. His playing is every bit as absorbing and mesmerizing as I remember it being. I’ve come to this show without my phone, something of a radical act in these times, which has allowed me a clear head and permitted the music to guide my thoughts where it may. During one of his solos, I drift toward what can almost be described as a trance. My mind has turned from the quotidian to the transcendent, and I find myself pondering existential queries and notions. Masterly playing is a drug that momentarily makes you blissfully unaware of the time and space around you; it is an infinite expanse you can effortlessly lose yourself in.
I return from this daze in time to hear Frampton ask us with a tantalizing equanimity, “You ready?” This can mean only one thing: it is time for “Do You Feel Like We Do,” his interminable magnum opus. His opening riff sounds every bit as crisp and beguiling as it did forty years ago. He wraps it up at around fifteen minutes or so, and, with it, his part of the gig.
With his bit done, we flock for the beer stands outside of the seating area; the latter is covered but the former is not. Unfortunately for us, the ominous clouds and swirling winds that had been nipping at the venue from the west during Frampton’s set bring their rain. Those of us in the thirsty welter arrive outside just in time to get soaked—but we do get our beers. The crowd, at this point, appears more diverse than it had upon my arrival. There are people of all ages, though it is still a predominantly middle-aged bunch, and of all stripes: rockers, bikers, students, hippies, pensioners, housewives, you name it.
I and much of this farrago return to the stage as the lights go down to indicate the imminent arrival of the next act, Steve Miller and his band. As the musicians take the stage, it occurs to me that I have no idea what Miller looks like. I am only able to identify him when he takes his place at centre stage. He looks like Merrick Garland or Jerry Springer with a guitar; he wears a cream-coloured jacket and black pants and sports a tuft of dark grey hair with tinges of white. His bespectacled, wizening countenance and his mild manner evoke the bond traders I ride in the elevator with each morning.
Of course, appearances count for little, and there is no question that the man is a six-string savant. When your promo man hails your coming onto the stage with the sobriquet “Stevie ‘Guitar’ Miller,” chances are you know how to pick a chord or two—and does he ever. And where Frampton brings his virtuosity in lieu of a bevy of hits, Miller and his mastery ride into town on a prodigious line of them. As he and his band swing into one after the other it strikes me just how many of his songs I know, some of which I even find I know the words to.
The audience is raucous now—perhaps roused from its inertia by heavy rain and thirteen-dollar cans of beer in the intermission—and every flick of Miller’s wrist has them dancing in the aisles. An oscillating wrist is mostly what you get from Miller; he rarely moves more than a couple of feet from his mic stand, and when he really starts to groove you might see him bend at the waist or turn obliquely toward his bandmates. But his guitar playing is what we are here for, and it is undeniably stellar.
After a few songs, he welcomes Frampton back out onstage. Pete, now wearing a black tee shirt, looks thin and diminutive, almost gaunt, next to the more robust Miller; the paradox is furthered when they speak, Frampton with his soft British brogue and Miller with an unmistakable Midwestern twang. Yet the two do seem to have stylistic overlaps in that Miller brings a sort of pop-rock-blues mix while Frampton owns more of a pop-rock sound. However, they choose to jam with a couple of blues tunes, after which Miller thanks the crowd for indulging the two of them.
The highlight of Steve’s set came, unsurprisingly, with a creditable rendition of “The Joker”—the song that had mostly kept me here following Frampton’s half—played on a bejeweled, deep blue guitar whose ornaments glinted in the stage lights. “A bit gaudy,” Steve notes dryly as he explains how it was gifted to him by his guitar maker upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (It should be said that this is not the gaudiest guitar in his arsenal, for earlier he had brought out what he referred to as a “sitar-like guitar” with nineteen strings, fake alligator hide, a mirror on the back, and a positively exotic sound.)
As his encore crescendos and he sings about time slipping into the future, I wonder whatever is to be when men like him and Frampton are no longer able to grace our stages. What will become of those of us in this audience—the vintage hippies that Hunter S. called the “refugees from the Love Generation,” the Boomers, their children, and the rest of us with our purloined nostalgia—when the giants of classic rock can no longer offer us brief respite from a madcap world?
It was a fatalistic thought, but it was not the first time it had crossed my mind: every year that the Stones do not announce a tour there is a profound angst stirred inside me. It is a bittersweet realization that nights like this one are numbered, fleeting, something to be fully savoured now but mourned later. I took a great, rather indescribable joy from an evening spent listening intently, fully, without distraction, as two musical magicians shared their gift.
As for what happens when we are forced to make the move from savouring to mourning, perhaps Steve Miller was providing us the answer in his finale: “The big wheel keeps on spinning around.”
As if on cue, the rains returned to show us to the door.