It was a great show. Based on the CD at least I don’t think it was much different from the London shows. They may have done a bit more improvisation, but not much more. They just kept to their set list, what they had rehearsed, and gave pretty much the same show every night, with the usual variations you’d expect in the solos, intensity, delivery of the songs, etc. depending on how each performer feels on the particular night.
Judging from the photos in the MSG concert program of the Royal Albert performances the stage looked very similar, so if you have the DVD (I don’t yet) you probably have a good idea what the show looked like.
They had a small, simple stage with a few white and colored spotlights and a background screen that continuously flashed psychedelic colors. Very simple, I suppose similar to what it must have looked like in the 60s, except for the two large video screens hanging from the ceiling.
They came onstage without announcement, just the house lights dimming, and of course the place erupted. I’d received an email a few days ahead of time from Ticketmaster with the groundrules and stating that Cream would come onstage about 8:30 and play till about 10:30, and that was correct within about 5 minutes.
The first few songs were ok, but nothing special. They really hit their stride on N.S.U. and then they were flying. Jack and Ginger kind of got it going first, a great solo jam, and then Jack kind of walked over toward Eric, with Ginger also looking in his direction, drumming madly all the time, as if to ask whether Eric was also going get it going? Ginger and Jack were playing this unbelievable rhythm jam and it was as if they were saying to Eric “hey if we can do this then you should be doing something special too.” So he did, you could hear him making the effort to ratchet it up a notch, and from there they never looked back.
It was like they lifted us all up into this kind of mental warp where you don’t notice the passing time till it’s almost over. They got each other going and that got us all going. I remember concerts like that, but have not been to one for a long time.
I was telling my brother the story of how I knew to go on the website right away and get tickets, how I met this guy Brett in Melbourne when I was down there literally the week before starting Iona. I was teaching a class on Windows DNA and one of the guys in the class invited a friend of his, Brett, from New Zealand, who just happened to be over at the same time, to join us for dinner.
At one point in the evening the discussion turned to the inevitable question of who is the “best rock guitarist,” and Brett made the case for Clapton, based on his live improvisational work with Cream. I had seen Hendrix and Gregg Allman and I did not really give in at the time, especially having Clapton’s later solo work in mind.
Brett and I have stayed in touch, exchanging the occasional email, sometimes (or often I guess) about music, and he was watching the Web sites and sent me an email when he saw the news. So I was ready the morning of Sept. 12 and got the order in.
We were in the risers at the end of the floor farthest away from the stage. The seats on the floor took up about two thirds of the hockey rink size floor, with folding seats on risers for the rest, and the floor seats were twice as expensive. We were about halfway up the section with the risers, with a head on view of the stage, slightly to the left of center.
The overall highlight was probably Badge, with Stormy Monday also a standout because of the sheer musicality in the guitar work.
One thing different between this edition of Cream and the 1966-1968 version of the band, at least judging from the live recordings and bootlegs (I was not lucky enough to see them then) was that other songs tended to be highlights bask then, like Spoonful and Crossroads. Spoonful was not remarkable at all this time, although of course very well sung and played – no complaints, just not a highlight. And while the new arrangement of Crossroads is excellent and fresh, it was also not the standout of the concert like it used to be.
They did not try to be the old Cream, which was great. Of course they would have had a hard time doing that anyway 37 years later. They were just the Cream they are now, which is three still great muscians playing in a kind of equal partner format, performing great songs, and jamming.
After all, you go to a concert to hear great songs performed well – and they wrote and covered a lot of great songs. And if you can get some top flight muscians to play some good solos and jam in the bargain, well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Someone I was talking with the day after raised the inevitable age question and the burnout issue – didn’t Ginger Baker burn out from drug abuse long ago? Aren’t these guys too old to play that kind of music? No, they were great. They are in their 60s but they played and sang great. Nobody asks this about B.B. King or Buddy Guy or John Lee Hooker when he was still around, so why should we ask it about these old white guys? Maybe this is another precedent – aside from inventing the power trio, inventing how you play bass, drums, and guitar in a blues rock band, inventing some great songs – they have now firmly set the precedent that old white guys can still play.
Ginger Baker’s solo on Toad was unbelievable. He kept it going a bit longer than the version on the CD, and added a few more twists. He nailed it, and the place went wild. Afterward he literally limped off stage.
Overall he was like a machine. A drum box could not have been more precise. He didn’t miss a beat the whole concert. My brother, who learned to play the drums by imitating Ginger Baker, kept saying nobody had ever played like that. He invented the style. Is it too much to say Ginger Baker invented modern rock ‘n’ roll rhythm? I don’t think so. I think we also know for sure who the greatest drummer is.
Jack Bruce had the most energy. His voice was strong and clear the whole evening and he kept his bass and harmonica playing inventive, strong, and just fitting into every song exactly the right way. The large screen video screens hanging from the ceiling, often focused in on his fingerwork, which was great because sometimes it is hard to believe the sound is coming from a bass guitar, or that you could even play a bass guitar the way he does.
And of course what more can you say about Eric Clapton. I guess this was the known quantity going in since Eric has been the one member of the band to have great, consistent fame during the past 30 years, and you can often hear his songs on the radio. But this was the group that made him famous, and you could see why. You could almost have called him the weak link in fact – at least until he got going.
At the end, during the encore, Bruce and Clapton stood facing each other from either end of the drum kit, making a tight group. They played that way for a few minutes, just all soloing together, as if saying goodbye, and then Eric nodded his head and they brought things to a close.
Looking back I cannot say for sure that it really seemed like they were playing together for the final time. It just felt more like another concert date. Of course they are true professionals, so you might reasonably expect nothing less. But I would not be too surprised to hear about a session in Tokyo later this year or early next year.
Before going in I was a bit worried I had over hyped myself, listening to the London CDs and the BBC CD and working myself up to such a state of anticipation that would easily lead to disappointment. And the way they started out, the first four slow songs, while of course great, were not up to that level.
After Bruce and Baker kicked Clapton into gear, though, they were flying and didn’t stop. I remember looking at my watch thinking it was about halfway through the show and it was already 10 past ten, much to close to the end already.
And I would definitely say that Jack and Ginger knew how to get the best out of Eric Clapton, and that they also knew very well what he was capable of. They were not going to settle for anything less. Because it just makes for great music. And Brett, I have to admit it is very hard now to argue against you.