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Thursday, October 20, 2005
New Release: Cream Royal Albert Concert Hall 2005 CD/DVD
The first thing you need to know about the Cream DVD/CD pair from Rhino is that the DVD movie is presented as a real event, from the through-the-wings opening, to the canny cinematography that takes many cues from the original Cream Farewell Concert, shot at the same location, Royal Albert Hall, London in 1968.
The first assumption many may have about the Cream reunion is that time must have slowed these guys down, it's bound to be a disappointment.
Another issue that probably will need to be addressed is the famously high ticket prices for the shows, but we'll address that later.
So now the big questions: Does the Cream reunion live up to the band's name? Can these guys still play? Is it a nostalgia trip, or is there real music going on?
Rest assured, the shows are good, the guys are in fine form, but one can't help but notice the effects of time at first, which is disorienting; except for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction, the trio has remained forever frozen in time, still the frizzed-out 60's band even if individually we've seen them age.
So we get our first taste of them with "I'm So Glad", and there they are all three, looking their ages but otherwise fit, with a psychedelic light show in back of them on an otherwise uncluttered stage. They seem to warm up as the song progresses; at first Clapton sounded tentative and murky, more like the early 70's Clapton than the Cream Clapton, while Bruce's voice has deepened, and he doesn't shoot for the high notes at first.
I started to get uncomfortable at this point; there are two discs of this. But all worries are set to rest when the slinky bass intro to "Spoonful" kicks in, and suddenly the band simply gels, all the years of playing the tune solo has honed them keenly; together at once, they suddenly transform themselves into Cream before your very eyes and ears. Bruce starts getting his high register Cream voice back, and takes a strutting bass solo; Clapton starts answering his runs, and takes off for the rafters and down below the floorboards in the first of what will turn out to be plenty of Cream worthy solos. Baker gets his swing on, and "Spoonful" is the real Cream, right there before your eyes.
From this point on, the viewer or listener can take from this what they came in for; it does remain evident that this Cream isn't 1968 Cream. But 2005 Cream is still Cream, and if you're looking for some of that old magic, it really is here. And if you're a skeptic, the music is a textbook case in mastery of their form. While they sound more professional than the old Cream, which got reckless, it serves to highlight what really is some pretty extraordinary playing that musicians a third of their ages can only dream about.
So "Outside Woman Blues" is a winner, because Clapton's solo is dead on, and his vocal has authority, not always a given with Clapton. Ginger Baker gets his first spotlight with "Pressed Rat and Warthog", which hits languid psychedelic groove that rides the waves of Bruce's fluid runs, and Clapton's chimes. Bruce's vocal on "Sleepy Time Time" is robust, and Clapton and Baker's harmonies find their marks.
"N.S.U." gets psychedelic right off the bat, and Clapton gets off some raga-like runs in between some chunky rhythmic playing, before taking a fuzz solo that snakes off in all possible directions while Baker settles into a tub-thumping groove and Bruce's bass runs all over. This is perhaps the first stunningly electrifying moment on the disc; like a vintage wine, these are simply sounds that haven't been heard done by anyone in 37 years. "N.S.U." is also the band's first real improv of the night; it smoulders. It sets the pace for the rest of what comes, which is one classic after another, true to the originals yet full of brand new sounds that keep them vital.
Which means that "Badge" hasn't lost Clapton's gorgeous solo, which follows an extended galvanizing strum, and his second solo waxes lyrical. "Politician" does its job, "Sweet Wine" returns us to improv psychedelic head rock; Clapton's guitar is crisp despite the hazy distortion that envelops it, Bruce doesn't rest, Baker's drums alternate between jazzy, bluesy, and tribal. We get a good-old fashioned blues harmonica from Bruce on "Rollin' and Tumblin'" as Clapton and Baker chug along like a freight train.
How much further can the point be taken?
As the classics just roll on by, "Stormy Monday", "Deserted Cities of the Heart", "Born Under a Bad Sign", "Crossroads", "White Room"... what you get is Cream.
The shows close with Ginger Baker's drum workout "Toad", always the most controversial title in the Cream canon, which opens like acid rock never left; Clapton and Bruce then depart the stage while Baker gets it all to himself. It's Toad, all right, although it's 9 minutes plus here; back in the day, Baker would keep going for up to twenty.
"Sunshine Of Your Love" is the grand finale; deuling leads by Clapton and Bruce highlight the jam in the middle; it closes in a fantastic acid rock jam. And the main program is complete, the music ringing in your ears, your central nervous system awakened in ways it hasn't been in a long time.
To address the ticket issue, I figure if the market could bear what they got, and they didn't slouch, they were entitled to it as much as the Rolling Stones or Madonna are. I'm not sure if what they delivered is worth a three-digit ticket prices, but I can see how a fan who paid the three digits could leave the venue and feel like it was worth it.
I don't have that kind of dough, but the DVD and CD work well enough for me.
Instrumentally, they're at the top of their game, and missteps are few; if the vocals have slipped a little, it could have been a lot worse, and most of the time they're just fine.
As for the nuts and bolts; the packaging for the CD and DVD are identical; the artwork is in psychedelic poster style, with Cream rendered as their 1960's incarnation. The double-disc CD contains 19 tracks, the DVD has 22 clips (three songs have alternate clips included), and (very) brief interviews with the trio (Baker was the most pessimistic about the chances for a reunion).
No package is perfect; there are no liner notes to speak of, and the current photos of the band have been psychedelicized (Baker is photographed from the back), so you have to watch the DVD to see what they look like. But it delivers everything I was looking for, and exceeded my skeptical expectations by a mile.
Cream: Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 has gotta be the most vital sounding 60's reunion in well over a decade. Perhaps it is a nostalgia trip for some; but as someone who wasn't there for the first era, it surely reinforced their legend on me.
Cream will also reunite for four shows at Madison Square Garden: October 24th, 25th, 26th, 2005.
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