Steve Miller and Peter Frampton Celebrate Nearly 50 Years of Friendship at Mountain Jam

Steve Miller is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even if he was a little bit cranky when it all went down, a quick look at his career over the years reveals how he got there and just how many hits he racked up — and they were all present and accounted for during his Sunday-night performance at Mountain Jam.

He primed the audience quickly with his first five songs: “The Stake,” “Swingtown” “Abracadabra,” “Living in the U.S.A.” and “Take the Money and Run” gave a good sign of what was in store for the night’s set. But, as he shared later, there was a time when he saw an expiration date on his career.

The year was 1973, and as Miller recalled, he had made six albums and had turned in his seventh. “We were at the end of the road with our record company,” he remembered, noting that he wasn’t hearing anything from the label about the album after they had received it. He left on tour, thinking that his career was over. Coming home to San Francisco after the tour wrapped, he turned on the radio to check and see what was going on and heard “The Joker” on four out of the five stations he scanned that day. It was Miller’s first No. 1, “and with that, you get bigger amps, vans and better guitars.” He then thanked the audience for that early support. Next year, Miller will mark 50 years since recording the Steve Miller Band’s debut album, Children of the Future.

There were no songs from that record in last night’s set, but Miller and his band did touch on a number of other albums from his lengthy discography. Early on, he remarked that playing in the mountains made him want to do a bit of a “country set,” which he indulged by playing “Going to the Country,” pulled from his 1970 album Number 5, and “Wild Mountain Honey,” one of five tracks he played from the classic Fly Like an Eagle album.

One of the coolest moments of the night happened about a half hour into Miller’s set when he pulled Peter Frampton, his current touring partner, onstage for a two-song blues jam featuring “Stranger Blues” and “Who’s Been Talkin’.” (Miller has recorded studio versions of both songs: “Stranger Blues” was on 1993’s Wide River, and “Who’s Been Talkin’” is on 2010’s Bingo!.) The pair has a lot of history together, as Miller shared, recalling how they had toured together in the ‘70s, eventually playing football stadiums together.

For fans, it was a chance to see two guitar legends square off on the same stage, which went over big with the crowd. It’s surprising, with all of the classic-rock package tours that are out on the road these days, that there isn’t more of this happening. Too often, when it’s brought up in interviews leading up to a tour, the artist will say, “We’d love to, if we can find the time to put something together” or they’ll just dodge the question. It was nice to see Miller and Frampton put that concept into play, and it was pretty evident how much they enjoyed doing it.

Frampton had already served up a refresher course in his stellar guitar playing during his 85-minute set earlier. He walked out with a big grin on his face, wearing a Johnny Varvatos T-shirt that said “Bite Me” on it, later noting that Varvatos himself was in the Mountain Jam audience. Digging into the title track from his 1974 album Something’s Happening, he demonstrated from the start why he’s still such a strong force. He shared a story about Miller going back 47 years, remembering how he had bumped into Miller overseas while Frampton was on tour with Humble Pie.

He came armed with new music too, performing “I Saved A Bird Today” on acoustic guitar. He also paid tribute to the late Chris Cornell with a guitar-heavy cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” which he previously recorded on his 2006 Fingerprints album. “We’ve been doing this song for a few years now, because I like it a lot,” he told the crowd. “The singer that wrote this song was a friend of mine and we lost him recently, Mr. Chris Cornell. I dedicate this to him and his family.” Recast in that light, Frampton’s version, both musically and visually, felt like a reverent tribute, with Frampton lifting his picking hand high in the air in the sections between the instrumental “verses.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a Frampton show without some of his big songs. “Show Me the Way” was there, along with with the famous talkbox, while “Baby I Love Your Way” came close to the end of the set, and found the audience swaying and singing the chorus lyrics back to Frampton before he could even get to them. Eventually, Frampton handed the singing duties for the next chorus over to the fans.

Wrapping up the main portion of his set with a mammoth 17-minute version of “Do You Feel Like We Do,” which might have been one of the longest jams of Mountain Jam’s weekend. (An honorable mention goes to the incredible guitar jam that Frampton and guitarist Adam Lester — “my wingman,” as Frampton called him — laid out during “I’ll Give You Money.”)

At the conclusion of Frampton’s set, Mountain Jam founder Gary Chetkof came out to thank the fans for helping to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the festival. He noted that when the event launched in 2005, there were four bands and it was planned to be a one-time event. Fan response made them realize that it needed to become an annual happening.

It was a cool moment, but Frampton wasn’t done with his set yet. Even though he was over his allotted set time, he strolled back onstage and launched into a set-closing cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” You have to wonder if any of this was planned, but as Chetkoff said as the guitarist left the stage for good, “When Peter Frampton wants an encore, he gets an encore.” It was the perfect way to wrap up another year of Mountain Jam.

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