Following a jam-packed 2013 Guitar Circus tour, hot off the heels of the release of his latest album, Hummingbird in a Box, and just days into his 2014 tour, legendary guitar player and Grammy Award-winner Peter Frampton hits Lincoln Theatre for the tour’s single D.C. stop on July 8th. We chat with the musician about working with other artists, how the ballet has inspired him, and more.
Your new album, Hummingbird in a Box, was inspired by the Cincinnati Ballet. They choreographed numbers to your music and you even performed live with them! How did you get involved?
Peter Frampton: They asked me six or seven years ago if they could use four of my tunes—three instrumentals and one song—to choreograph a ballet piece to recorded music. I was on the road, as usual, when they performed it, but when I got the DVD of it I was just blown away, with having never seen my music with dance. It was beautiful dance, beautiful choreography. So I contacted Victoria Morgan, CEO and artistic director, said how much I liked it, and she invited me down to see it in action.
I went down and got closer to the dance than you would even in the front row, and was just amazed at these incredible dancers that are from all around the world. [Morgan] said, ‘I’d like to ask you….We once had a band play on stage behind the ballet…songs that they do live, we choreograph. The energy is so intense, the crowd just gets thrilled.’ I said that it was completely off the wall for me, and I love the idea of a challenge.
So she asked you for a set list from a regular concert, to choose songs for three 25-minute sets, and you said what?
PF: ‘How about we take it one step further? Why don’t we do one set of brand new music?’ She was silent. Breathtaken that I would want to do something like that. We’d have my catalogue music at the beginning and the end, and new stuff in the middle. Adam Hougland did the choreography for what ended up being called Hummingbird in a Box. Gordon Kennedy and I set about writing seven pieces of music, and we were able to write stuff without thinking about a chorus—instead thinking about movement. It was a challenge. And I loved doing it. It was a labor of love.
You played three shows with them before recording the album the next year. Of course you’re no stranger to performing live, but what was it like to play live in that capacity?
PF: It’s very different. My shows are very freeform—certain songs are strictly beginning middle and end—but most have a beginning, with signposts along the way, and an end. Improving, they stretch or shorten depending on how long we want to play them. That could not happen with the ballet, [the dancers] had to know when we were finishing, so it was very difficult to do old material and restrict myself. I had to keep reminding myself that I had a certain number of bars solo. That was the most difficult part. I just had to keep my mind on what I was doing. There was one song that I was just playing on my own, instrumental acoustic, and I played one too few licks towards the end. I could see the dance, and that I was ahead of them, so I adlibbed a couple extra bars, and it worked!
This is your second year of some pretty seriously heavy touring. What are you looking forward to during this tour?
PF: This tour is really a three-pronged attack. It co-headlines with the Doobie Brothers, then we play on our own, which we call “An Evening With,” and at the end, two weeks of the Guitar Circus will return. Last year we had BB King as our main guest. This year, it’s Buddy Guy. On one date, we have BB King and Buddy Guy together. We have various guitar players jam with us, and do some of their numbers. I’m just thrilled and honored that these legendary players want to play together. Robert Randolph, Randy Bachman…It’s an amazing thing that all these players are coming out to join us. It’s a lot more work…but every night is worth it because the crowd goes nuts not only with us, but with other legendary players that do these wonderful songs and tunes that we all know.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of really talented, iconic people—George Harrison, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, Jerry Lee Lewis. Do you have a favorite person or memory?
PF: I usually say George Harrison because it was so wonderful to play with All Things Must Pass. But we had Stevie Wonder come out and play harmonica—that was also a memorable night. And then for the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ coming to America I got to play behind Stevie Wonder, and I completed the circle. There’s no one better than Stevie Wonder as a musician, and he’s a wonderful person.
You’ve played thousands of shows, and DC dozens of times. Is there anywhere in DC you make a point to stop by or check out while you’re here?
PF: If I can, I go to the Smithsonian [Air and Space Museum], because I’m a space nut, so I go there for all that. I don’t think we’re going to have enough time this time, but usually I try to get over there. I’ve always been a space nut. I know we need money for a lot of other things, but as soon as we can get the space plan back in action, we should. We need to go out and find that final frontier, as William Shatner used to say.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF LARRY MARANO/GETTY IMAGES