23.1.14

CREAM AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, May 5, 2005

I wrote this for Tony Fletcher’s ijamming website the morning after the show.

I never saw Cream in their heyday. It wasn’t that I was too young but they never came anywhere near where I lived. In any case, I was into The Beatles, Stones, Who and Tamla/Stax in those days, and Cream’s brand of heavily improvised blues and psychedelic uproar needed a bit of getting used to. I was aware of them and I respected them, but they were on another plane, one that I’d reach eventually before deciding that this sort of music was a bit of an acquired taste. By this time, of course, Cream were long gone and the style of music they pioneered had started to parody itself and become boring, formulaic and clichéd.
         Cream were never boring, though, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the free ticket (floor, 7th row centre, as good as it gets – thanks to my sadly departed friend and Clapton freak Virginia Lohle) for last night’s show at the RAH, the third in a series of four that saw Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker re-united on stage for the first time in 38 years.
         Welcomed on stage by a great roar, they steamed into ‘I’m So Glad’ and kept up a remarkable pace through 18 further songs in an hour and three-quarters, barely stopping for a break apart from the gap before the predictable encore of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. And mighty good they were too, excellent even. I was especially impressed with Ginger, a skinny, sinewy, snappy little chap, fit as a fiddle, wide-awake and smacking those drums like the crack of a whip. He’s not ginger any longer, more off-white actually, bespectacled too, and looks a bit like old man Steptoe. Conversely Jack looks like someone who’s just got out of bed, staggering around with the gait of a rough sleeper who’s been plugged into a whiskey bottle for years. He’s skinny too, but in a sickly looking way, and pale of features. Someone said he was on his third liver, and from time to time he sat on a tall stool to play, but he can still handle a bass like a maestro, jiggling it up and down and playing fat chords or plucking upwards, always hard and inspired. Eric maintained his usual dignified presence, shortening his solos to 2005 standards and looking pleased to be back with his old chums. Indeed, all three habitually grinned at each other, a good sign. 
         What struck me most was how these three guys managed to sound like a much bigger band, with a really fat sound, probably a reflection of the drums as much as anything, though when Eric played chords there was a density that most quartets and even quintets lack. He played a Stratocaster throughout which gave him a crisp tone, even through a Lesley speaker; quite different from the sound he made in the Sixties when he played Gibsons that offered a much warmer tone. Jack played an old Gibson violin bass which he swapped for a sturdy looking fretless job half way through, and Ginger had twin bass drums, the first I’ve seen since Moonie in the 70s. In days of yore they’d have had a backline of speaker cabinets resembling a row of seaside chalets but today they use much smaller gear; looks better too.
         As for the highlights, I rather liked Ginger’s novelty song, ‘Pressed Rat And Warthog’, which he concluded with a droll announcement: “I’d like to inform you all that [a very long list of items of clothing] are available, all with the word Cream written on them.” He made it sound for all the world as if he was completely new to (and much delighted by) the concept of merchandising, a nice touch. In general stage announcements were minimal, most numbers segueing effortlessly into the next.
         I’ve always loved ‘Badge’, with its graceful descending arpeggios that bisect the verses, and tonight's version was peerless. ‘Politician’ truly growled and was particularly apt on polling day. Ginger kept time like a metronome during a quick ‘Rolling And Tumbling’, designed as a vehicle for Jack’s harmonica but the drums took gold for me, and Eric habitually dashed off solos that most guitarists would die for, particularly on ‘Stormy Monday’, his best solo of the night. He makes it look so easy too, as if he has all the time in the world for his nimble fingers to alight on exactly the right note time after time after time. It’s called fluency and it comes only after years of practice.
         I thought ‘Crossroads’ lacked the bite of older live versions by Cream, though, as the crackling little riff didn’t come through as it does on my old records. ‘White Room’ was lively and brought the house down, as did ‘Toad’, Ginger’s solo; the first drum solo I’ve heard in years which, contrary to expectations, I found myself enjoying. It was as if the coiled spring inside this wiry little fellow, which had kept the band on a fairly tight leash throughout the night, was finally allowed to unravel. They closed with a terrific ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, featuring as its coda what sounded like the first and only genuinely improvised passage of the night.
         One final thing. Annoyingly, almost all the reviews I read of this and other 2005 Cream shows dwelt on the age and appearance of the audience (what do they expect: a bunch of teenagers?) which I considered to be very lazy journalism, pointless too, as if today’s reviewers were incapable of discussing – or ignorant about – the actual music. I suppose it was easier to describe the audience than the fans but they even got this wrong too. As it happened, I was staggered by how many I noticed around me who were obviously far too young to have seen Cream first time around, not teenagers I grant you, but folk in their late twenties and thirties, men and women, whose obvious appreciation of this trio knew no bounds.

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