Cream: Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005
“ Cream has never sounded so streamlined nor so elemental, in a truly potent fashion, as on these 2005 recordings. ”
The reunion of Cream that took place this past may in London is a mixture of arrogance, curiosity and courage. Arrogance because that's at the root of their chosen name, intimating the trio is 'the cream of the crop' of musicianship. Curiosity because both fans and music lovers in general had to wonder what Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce might sound like after not playing together for over 35 years. And courage because, say what you will about (and we won't talk about ticket prices or methods of sale for the English shows and the ones this fall at Madison Square Gardens), the three had to be brave to appear in public again. And that's not to mention weathering the possible resumption of internal friction that made their original two-year sojourn so turbulentmusically and otherwise.
Watching the DVD and hearing the double CD it's safe to say the reunion is a success, though for reasons neither the musicians nor their audience might anticipate. It's not fair to say Cream were at the forefront of free-improvisation when they got together in 1966---Grateful Dead were just coming into their own at that time, while Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were at the forefront of the movement in jazzbut it is true they helped popularize it. If few of the renditions of their best-known songs here, such as "Spoonful, push the proverbial envelope as in the past, it's because Cream are different musicians now than before.
Certainly, the chemistry between Baker, Bruce and Clapton is still present and vigorous to boot. That no doubt explains why they chose a clutch of tunes from Fresh Cream to include in a set list that varied little from night to night (did Miles' great quintet change it up each night? How about Grateful Dead at Fillmore West in 1969?). "I'm So Glad," "Sleepy Time Time" and "N.S.U. displayed some style when first recorded poorly on that first Cream album, so it's a pleasure to hear the tunes in such a robust depth and mix here, where the bass booms and Clapton's guitar, thankfully free of effects, cuts a swath through the air.
The interviews included on the DVD, also available through Rhino, give a bit of insight into the arrangements and planning for the reunion, both in terms of the apprehension involved and the careful strategy of the rehearsals. You have to ask how illuminating some rehearsal footage might have been, say, when Cream was trying out the old Marshall amplifiers Bruce refers to? Here's where the ego rears its ugly head in keeping such insider experience private, but credit where credit is due: each of the three seems genuinely humble in speaking of the opportunity to play together again, a pleasure you can only appreciate when seeing the smiles exchanged on DVD.
Otherwise, the audio CDs might suffice since, as before,and as Ginger mentions, there is no showmanship to speak of when watching Cream at Royal Albert Hall. Baker in fact rolls smoothly and strongly through his drum solo on "Toad, displaying not the slightest grandstanding to the hungry crowd, except to throw sticks into the audience upon completion of his show of muscle and invention (and that's what it is.) Selections are denoted from the nights recordedTuesday curiously absentbut the flow of the show, as in the musicianship itself, is based upon finesse not the savagery so often evident in Cream concerts during their latter days together.
Eric Clapton's ruminations on the thoughts behind the Cream reunion are the most extensive, and not surprisingly so, for it was apparently his brainchild. He in fact may benefit the most by the reunion, artistically, if not financially (Clapton's solo career dwarfs those of Baker and Bruce because he's very consciously courted the mainstream). If you never thought Slowhand would again play with the power he displayed in his early days (including the time spent in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), here is where you are surprisedno astoundedby the intensity of his solos, and not just on his forte of the blues, such as "Born Under A Bad Sign.
The abandon of Clapton's playing on "Badge belies the fact Cream never played this song live (it was a studio recording on Goodbye), not to mention the redemption in the man's heart for regrouping with his two comrades. The effort he expends in pushing himself to these heights is obvious as you watch the DVD. Just as obvious is how Bruce has aged, but then his health has been poor lately, so just to see him so clearly relish being onstage with these two other men is a unique pleasure.
Guitar work extolling the commitment of the blues purist he once claimed to be, Clapton has clearly grown as a singer in the interim since Cream's Farewell concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1968 too. Here he takes the lead on "Stormy Monday, almost but not quite a caterwaul, while alternating with Jack on lead for "White Room and "Sunshine of Your Love was never so effective. His guitar, as previously mentioned, is thankfully free of the wah-wah and other treatments that mask the simplicity and passion at the core of Eric's playing: Cream has never sounded so streamlined nor so elemental, in a truly potent fashion, as on these 2005 recordings.
The irony in the reaction to these performances is to be expected. No band can break the same new ground repeatedly and if the impact of Cream's playing now falls short to certain ears, that's only a measure of the changes that have occurred in contemporary rock and jazz since they originally disbanded. And it's laughable to criticize these men for not extending renditions of warhorses like "Crossroads further than they do(this cut is just shy of four minutes on the CD): in fact, Cream was roundly criticized for going on too long during their heyday!
It's intriguing not just that the set list includes Ginger Baker singing "Pressed Rat and Warthog, but that "Deserted Cities of the Heart also from Wheels of Fire is given its due: the melodic similarities are all too apparent. And for Cream to choose the ghostly "We're Going Wrong from Disraeli Gears is a gesture of adventure on their part (albeit a small one), especially given the fact they extend it some eight minutes, engaging in the kind of combative interplay they made famous, but emphasizing a generosity of spirit once totally alien to the band.
Although the practical realities of working musicians might seem alien to superstars such as Cream, it's a fact, as they all admit in the interviews, they played better as the Royal Albert Hall run progressed through its four nights in May. A five-month lapse in time until the New York city shows in late October might have been counter-productive, but that only speaks to the need for this group, like any other band worth its salt, to play together regularly to be able to play their best. Imagine what benefits might accrue Cream and their audience if and when they embark upon an extended tour? It could render this CD/DVD set obsolete in very short order.
Tracks: I'm So Glad; Spoonful; Outside Woman Blues; Pressed Rat & Warthog; Sleepy Time Time; N.S.U.; Badge; Politician; Sweet Wine; Rollin' & Tumblin'; Stormy Monday; Deserted Cities of the Heart; Born Under A Bad Sign; We're Going Wrong; Crossroads; Sitting on Top of the World; White Room; Toad; Sunshine of Your Love; Sleepy Time Time (alternate on CD); We're Going Wrong; Sunshine of Your Love (both alternates on DVD).
Personnel: Ginger Baker: drums and vocals; Jack Bruce: bass, vocals & harmonica; Eric Clapton: guitar and vocals.