Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cream Reunion Concert - Royal Albert Hall

In 1987 I moved from New York to Tennessee. Despite being a typically malignant thirteen year-old, I was generally optimistic about this change in my life. But after a month or so in my new school (an all boys Catholic high school), I quickly learned that I was wildly unpopular with my new classmates and this condition saw little chance of improving before graduation.

Most of my spare time was spent in solitude listening to music. Generally, this music was either Jimi Hendrix or WEVL, a listener supported blues radio station in Memphis. I also started playing the guitar. I knew music from years of feeble trumpeting, and the mechanics of this new instrument came naturally. Moreover, its requisite hours of dedication gave me something to do.
But then one night while attending a church dance, I met a girl. She was not a typical southern girl. (I should say, even into adulthood, I’ve never understood southern women: they seem to speak some inexplicable foreign language, or perhaps it is my language that is foreign to them). To this day, my disastrous attempts to make conversation with southern women usually end with their frightened expressions trying to decipher the extent of what they obviously believe to be profound mental illness.

But this girl was different. We spent the entire evening not dancing, but rather talking about music. Specifically, much of the evening was spent debating Hendrix vs. Clapton. We ended up dating after that and her Clapton-biased arguments eventually wore down my resistance. I became a huge fan of Clapton and more notably Cream, that ephemeral band of the late sixties.

She and I would spend a lot of time at Audubon Park lying in the grass with our heads together, staring up at the blue Tennessee sky as we tried to answer all the impossible questions that were important in life:
1. Was Dylan ever going to stop being weird?
2. Will U2 ever make an album again or had they peaked with Rattle & Hum?
3. Imagine if the Beatles had played at Woodstock?
4. What are we doing and what’s going to happen to ‘us’?
5. Would Clapton, Bruce and Baker ever agree to reunite Cream?

The answers were as follows:
1. No.
2. Yes, they’ll make more albums, they haven’t peaked and The Bono One shall be exalted.
3. Nothing would have happened. They would have still broken up a week later.
4. We’re children. We’ll grow up and become different people and stop loving each other.
5. Yes – at the Royal Albert Hall on May 2, 2005.

Cream’s reunion, over three decades in the making, lived up to every enormous expectation that precluded it and I assure you, no one had greater expectations than I did. This is why this DVD is one of my favorite items on The Shelf. Stat to finish, each song is perfect. Rather than trying to replicate the overblown amplifications of their youth, the three brought their wisdom and matured styles to these old songs without losing the essence of what made these songs great in the first place.

This is seen most poignantly with Clapton’s playing. Firstly, his guitar of choice is not the steamrolling Gibson of his youth, but the elegant and fickle Fender Stratocaster. Also he chooses not to revert back to the frenetic, overblown and pretentious soloing heard in Creams original recordings, but rather uses a matured, deliberate style offering a dynamic range of emotional expressions and approaches.
Jack Bruce, looking somewhat frail, seems to defy time and his voice is as strong as ever in this performance. Ginger Baker, likewise, delivers a strong performance on all pieces including his trademark, ‘Toad’.

The landmark anthems such as ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ are here of course, but they are not the show’s highlights. I found myself going back again and again to those songs that trite, unimaginative classic rock stations never play:

Outside Women’s Blues
Sleepy Time Time
We’re Going Wrong

‘We’re Going Wrong’ provided perhaps the best platform for the three to showcase their virtuosity. Baker builds throughout the song, using a series of rolls to layer added tension as the song progresses. Jack Bruce demonstrates a powerful vocal performance. Clapton, likewise constructs an amazing solo that starts from a barely audible grumble and eventually wails the roof off the Albert Hall.

Sometimes a song of heartache is best sung by old men.

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