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Cream - Live at Royal Albert Hall Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 October 2005
ImageReprise (CDs) Rhino (DVDs)
performance 7.5
sound 9
picture 8
16-bit CDs (2) / Dolby Digital DVDs (2)

If you’re a fan of ‘60s British rock icons Cream but never saw drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton in concert back in the day, circa 37 years ago, this long-awaited reunion will be awesome.

If you’re that old and lucky enough to have seen Cream live, this composite set – cherry-picked from the trio’s four May 2005 concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, but mostly from the final show – may be a disappointment.

Being among the latter group – as a high school senior attending the Oct. 19, 1968 “Farewell Tour” show at the Forum (reference March ‘69’s Live Cream for tracks from that show) – I knew first-hand the guys’ ages worked against them. Clapton had just turned 60 barely a month before the shows, Bruce would hit 62 a week after and Baker was looking forward, or not, to No. 64 some three months later. Innit about four till late for these guys?
Clapton has stayed in the international spotlight and been candid in interviews about his years on junk and booze, so we know his story. He’s cleaned up and now looks younger than his years. When he shaves. Maybe having babies late in life helps him stay young.

Baker looked cadaverous in his 20s because he, too, was also a notorious heroin addict back then. He eventually returned to the living, but had been out of the spotlight the last couple of decades. Bruce, who’s enjoyed a loyal U.K. following and continued to record solo albums since Cream, underwent a liver transplant in 2003 and nearly didn’t survive his body’s initial rejection. So who knew what shape those two were in after all these years?

Then one had to wonder: Was this Cream on their ultimate nostalgia trip for shits and giggles, or to secure their retirement and their heirs’ estates? Was it Clapton, a multi-millionaire, helping out his less-wealthy former bandmates with their pension plans?

Could Cream live up to 37 years of unrequited media hype? To the rock press, it seemed only a Beatles reunion could have topped it. What about the fans? Did Boomers really give a hang anymore? Could Cream’s dino-metal possibly be relevant to Gens X, Y and Z?

Most importantly, could these rock heroes still shred onstage with the same balls-out intensity? Could they do justice to these rock classics indelibly etched on our collective aural consciousness?

Basing its repertoire on recycled and highly amplified American blues and jazz-influenced originals, Cream was the rock era’s first so-called “supergroup,” because its members had established their notoriety in previous bands.

Bruce and Baker, still in their early 20s upon Cream’s rise in 1966, had displayed their jazz and blues chops in the Graham Bond Organisation and before that Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Clapton, the youngest, was deep into American-made blues, rock and electric guitars, especially Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters. Nicknamed “Slowhand,” Clapton emerged from the Yardbirds, then John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which also included Bruce for a short time during Clapton’s tenure.

Cream’s powerful, often chemically-fueled blues/jazz/rock head-riff-and-
solo jams and unexpectedly thoughtful, melodic or humorous songs went over big with audiences who were generally chemically enhanced as well.
The three proto-hard rock albums Cream released between 1966-68 – Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears and the half-studio, half-live Wheels of Fire double LP – plus the singles and tours that supported them made the band international superstars. This was especially true for Clapton, by then re-nicknamed “God” by his fast-growing legion of acolytes.

Those three albums sold more than 35 million copies worldwide in two short years. As the Beatles had spawned a million pop quartets, Cream inspired a million hard rock bands, and foreshadowed metal pioneers like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.

As the Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor song from Disraeli Gears goes, “Those were the days – yes, they were.”

By mid-1968, however, as the band was peaking, its members were freaking. Partway through an American tour, the trio announced they were splitting. But there was so much money at stake, they somehow endured the intra-band acrimony long enough to complete the tour and avoid public lynching, lawsuits or both.

Cream thus went from sitting on top of the world to being squashed by it.

Whatever their fame or fortunes before or since, Baker, Bruce and Clapton sealed their place in rock history in their two years as Cream. The trio was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and played together at the reception for the first time since 1969. Rough and off-the-cuff as their short set was, it gave two or three generations of Cream fans a tantalizing taste of what to expect if these guys were to actually rehearse and tour again.

It also reportedly reminded Clapton just how important Cream and its body of work had been to his career, and he became more open to the idea of a more formal reunion. Bruce’s health scare a couple of years ago finally prompted Clapton to set the wheels in motion.

The first week of May 2005, still alive and kickin’, Cream reunited for four nights at Royal Albert Hall, which sold out immediately. (During the summer, the band announced they’d play a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in late October, also an immediate sellout.) As the musicians ambled onto the Royal Albert Hall stage and tuned up to a standing ovation, the cameras panned the hall. The venue was packed to the rafters with mostly pre-geezer boomers (including guitarist Brian May of Queen and Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn), but also a healthy representation of the younger 18-35 demographic. It appeared boomers still cared about Cream, and their kids wanted to know.

The show’s production values were very low-key by Green Day standards. Cream’s focus as always was the music. The three band members – no ringer players or singers – set their gear up on a simple stage at one end of the long oval hall. A five foot high white scrim ran end-to-end across the stage behind the band, short enough to allow people in the seats behind the stage to see the musicians, and on this sliver of white sheeting, psychedelic washes of color were projected throughout the show. That was the extent of the effects.

The set lists for both releases are nearly identical; most tracks come from the fourth and final night, Friday, May 6, and, curiously, there’s nothing at all from the opening night, Monday, May 2.

The DVD set list: “I’m So Glad,” “Spoonful,” “Outside Woman Blues,” “Pressed Rat and Warthog” (all May 6); “Sleepy Time Time” (May 3); “N.S.U.” (May 6); “Badge” (May 3); “Politician,” “Sweet Wine,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (all May 6); “Stormy Monday” (May 5); “Deserted Cities of the Heart” (May 3); “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “We’re Going Wrong” (both May 6) on Disc 1, with Disc 2 including “Crossroads,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (both May 6); “White Room” (May 3); “Toad” (May 5) and “Sunshine of Your Love” (May 3). Bonus tracks: alternate nights’ performances of “Sleepy Time Time” (May 6) and “We’re Going Wrong” (May 3) on Disc 1 and “Sunshine of Your Love” (May 6) on Disc 2.

The CD set substitutes the May 3 performances of “Sweet Wine” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” for the May 6 ones and the May 6 “Sleepy Time Time” for the May 3 one, skipping “Sittin’ on Top of the World” altogether and adding as the lone bonus track the May 3 “Sleepy Time Time.”

The composite set on the DVDs and CDs presented some surprisingly strong musical moments, even given the band members’ encroaching geezerdom. Still, few of the performances matched the raw intensity and edge of a Cream concert of yore. These concerts were musically very strong, but also borderline polite. And “polite” would hardly have been in Cream’s musical lexicon four decades ago.

Bruce indeed looked like a guy who’d recently had a liver transplant, but there he was, up for the game. His pipes were strong, as was his distinctive vocal phrasing. Alternating between a hot-wired Gibson and a custom Warwicke fretless (both run wirelessly through a Hartke amp head and speakers), Bruce played with precision throughout the set. His lines were ballsy, fluid, jazzy and melodic – whatever the music called for. He also blew some mad harp on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” as Baker kept the “Traintime” rhythm highballin’ behind him and EC ripped the signature slide riffs.

Baker’s still rail-thin and sunken-jawed, but his face looked healthier than the mug I recall seeing up close through high-powered binoculars at the Forum 37 years ago. At Royal Albert Hall, he was the weakest musical link.

Behind basically the same double-kick, multiple tom, multiple cymbal layout he’s used since he could afford them all, Baker played with a less powerful attack. He was a generally solid timekeeper, but his fills were relatively unambitious and he missed numerous critical musical cues that define Cream’s performances of the songs. His playing on Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” especially lacked snap because he was not syncopating his snare, kick and right-hand stick on the bell of his ride cymbal in the same way he did on Cream’s earlier cover. That riff is another that’s too definitive to smooth out and play straight.

With Clapton and Bruce’s playful backing, Baker sang lead (using a headset) on “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” a novelty he penned with Mike Taylor for Wheels of Fire, and one of two songs Cream had never performed live before 2005, the second being “Badge” (more on that shortly).

It was delightful to hear “PR&W” live; Baker appeared to have big fun singing and playing it, and Bruce ripped a short solo at the end which could have been mixed louder. Conspicuously missing was the plaintive wail of that solo trumpet heard on the original studio track (played by producer Felix Pappalardi, who’s also sorely missed, but that’s another movie).

The real test for Baker, of course, was “Toad,” his original instrumental from Fresh Cream comprised of a head riff and tag played by the trio with a lengthy drum solo in between. The original Fresh Cream version was 5:11; on the live Wheels of Fire, the track went on for 17:35. Baker was a human rhythm machine then, all elbows and knees and using all of his skins, cymbals, cowbells and assorted percussion stuff. Clapton and Bruce loved “Toad”; they got to leave the stage, hit the loo and … get refreshed – yeah, that’s it – until they heard Baker play a riff that was their cue to come back onstage and help wrap it up.

At RAH, “Toad” from May 5 (Baker wearing Disraeli Gears t-shirt) clocked in at 9:48. The band kicked it off at a slightly slower tempo, and Baker’s solo also got off slowly, but by halfway through he’d found a groove and executed some very solid soloing, though it seemed he sped up the tempo a few BPM. As he finished with some nice double-kick and cross-hand stuff (cue Jack and Eric), Baker showed flashes of his former brilliance – acknowledged by the audience who cheered and gave him a standing O.

In the end, though, Clapton saved this show. He checked his latter-day schmaltz at the door and played his young-man-blues-rockin’ ass off. His solos were consistently well-crafted and soulful, and different every time (check the alternate takes).

Clapton’s playing on the blues songs – especially “Sleepy Time Time” and Chester Burnett’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (May 6), with more of Bruce’s bad-ass harp, and T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” (May 5) – was particularly passionate and edgy, informed by another 37 years of living since EC last performed with Cream.

Eschewing guitar changes between songs and nights, Clapton stuck with a black Fender Stratocaster dressed with white pick guard, playing it through a wireless custom set-up that included a vintage Fender and a Leslie speaker cabinet, usually used with a Hammond B-3 organ. He played his Strat through the Leslie on “Badge,” the other song Cream had never performed live (EC and his solo band did play it backing George Harrison, his co-writer on the tune, live in Japan in the early ’90s). Clapton sang an impassioned lead here, and took a long pause, as if calling up the spirit of his old friend, before he stepped on a switch to turn on the Leslie and play, on George’s behalf, the most delicious rock solo of the set.

In 5.1 surround, the sonic feast is especially soul-satisfying to hear and experience, especially with the mix subtly moving the sound from left to right and back to front. “Badge” underscores the dearth of such guitar and sonic effects elsewhere in the show and mix.

Probably the biggest instrumental “WTF?!!?” question addresses the lack of wah-wah, a key element of Clapton’s guitar sound on several Cream songs, such as “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” both notably and painfully missing from this set, and “White Room,” included here but sans wah-wah. I hate to be a crybaby, but “White Room” in particular is defined by Clapton’s wah-wah riffage. At Royal Albert Hall, without that signature sound, “White Room” sounded like it does when Eric performs it with his solo band, not Cream. When I played this track for a friend, he immediately asked me, unprompted, “Where’s the wah-wah?” As if I knew. We instinctively filled in the wah-wah licks vocally. Thank God no one else was there to see/hear us.

The set’s best free-form jamming came through in the instrumental section of “N.S.U.” from the final concert May 6, and as a coda at the end of the same show’s set-closing version of “Sunshine of Your Love.”

I can appreciate the band and the producers didn’t want to tart it up too much. Cream never did that kind of stuff. Still, thinking as a fan and then as a producer, I would have brought in a solo trumpet player for “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” added “Those Were The Days” and brought in hand-bell players (producer Pappalardi played them on the original studio track) and added “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” to the set, with wah-wah, please.

For the last encore, as the audience was going wild, I’d have a roadie push
an old upright saloon piano and player onto the stage and turn the arena into a pub. Baker, Bruce and Clapton, with (soft) drinks in hand, would gather ’round and break into “A Mother’s Lament” (Disraeli Gears), then swagger off the stage, waving goodbye as the crowd fell out of their seats laughing.

Like the concerts, the DVD is a no-frills production, helmed by producer and technical director James Pluta. Martyn Atkins directed his crew of camera-people very well; we hardly see them and they didn’t miss much. With just three guys and few production cues, they were able to focus on getting in tight and catching everything.

The editing is seamless between the songs. If the different dates hadn’t been Chyroned onscreen and you didn’t pay attention to their different clothes each performance, you’d never know they came from different nights. The pace of editing is also careful to work with the songs’ rhythms. You see nice, lingering close-ups of the players as they sing and solo, interspersed with wide shots of all three guys and occasional glimpses of the audience and hall. Occasional split-screen views give us different angles of each guy playing simultaneously on a single screen.

Along with the stereo and 5.1 surround mixes and the three aforementioned alternate performances, the DVD includes brief, separate interviews with Baker, Bruce and Clapton. Baker confirms the reunion idea was Clapton’s, and that he (Baker) never thought it would happen, though he was quite pleased it did. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says. Baker opines that he and Bruce were jazz players, and so was Eric, except he didn’t know it. “We were three musicians with the gift of time,” he says.

Bruce talks about having been very ill a year earlier, and that it served as a wakeup call that they’d better reunite before it was too late. He says he and Baker are pals again after a long rift. “This was not nostalgia at all,” Bruce claims. “It seemed new and fresh – like us now, not us then. It was musically quite valid … It sent shivers down my spine.” He reveals that the initial set list was 35 songs – it surprised him they had that much material. The band then winnowed them down to the final set list. Bruce cited the chemistry between the trio as an element of their musical success: “We know what to do … but it’s also magical and accidental.”

Clapton talks about revisiting the Cream style and how important it was to him as a musician and to his career. He says “When’s Cream gonna reunite?” was the question he was most often asked over the past 30 years, and eventually it got irritating. Finally, though, he thought, “Why not?” Better do it while all three of them are still alive. They had a long rehearsal period, “Just to build up our stamina.” They wanted to get it right, and not be as chaotic as they were the first time around. “We took it seriously,” he says, “and felt a lot of responsibility and pressure to do our best.” He also admitted their memories were shot; they had to relearn critical musical cues that were once intuitive, but “We luckily found our way.” He adds that things between the three were a little testy at the beginning, but once they got past that, the experience was great. They realized they were very lucky to have this encore shot. Clapton’s most telling comment: “We wanted to do it exactly, almost, like we did back then.”

But the viewer is left wanting much more. How about some behind-the-scenes “making-of” footage and more of the interviews? How about a band history? Some quotes about Cream from other musicians – peers from the ‘60s and current musician fans? How about alternate camera views of the performances – like a split-screen option so you can watch all three guys at once for as long as you like? The lack of additional content seems like a missed opportunity.

Bottom line: this concert sounds better than it looks. If you’d like to hear B, B & C reunite but don’t want to see them lookin’ old and gray, buy the CD. If you don’t care what they look like, go for the DVD and the 5.1 surround.

Even better, try the DVD with your eyes closed, and listen to it in surround as you watch the pictures in your mind.

Producer Simon Climie (Clapton’s Reptile and Pilgrim albums, Clapton and B.B. King’s Ridin’ With the King, Michael McDonald’s Motown) recorded Cream’s Royal Albert Hall concerts in 5.1 surround using a ProTools HD system.

Mick Guzauski’s 5.1 mix is a straightforward concert mix that nonetheless very effectively puts the listener inside the massive hall, and wraps the sound around your head.

With just the three musicians, you get great separation; each instrument is distinct, even as the players intertwine in a jam section. You can hear Bruce’s thumb poppin’ on the bass strings; Baker’s kick is a prominent THUMP! as it should be. You can’t miss EC – he’s the only guitar player blazing on top.

There’s also a good bit of room ambience in the hot space between the trio’s notes, and the sound and applause envelop you, as if you were sitting about tenth row center.

Somewhat less straightforward is the mix on “Badge,” in which Clapton’s Leslie lead solo travels between channels and right up the listener’s spine. It’s a moment nearly worth the price of admission alone.

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