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CREAM: LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker
Director: Martyn Atkins
Audio:  Dolby 2.0 and DTS 5.1
Video:  Color Widescreen
Studio:  Warner Strat. Mkt.
Features:  See Review
Length:  130 minutes
Release date: October 4, 2005

“Ginger and Jack were kind of musical rebels, you know, they were going after something, and unstoppable.  And so we did jell, I had that too.  It felt like I was on a mission, and up until I met them, that I was on my own, and then I felt like I was with my ilk, I’d met my like, my match.  For as long as it went on, even though we didn’t really know what we were doing, we were very happy a lot of the time.” 

Film ***1/2

In its earlier days rock was not taken seriously as music to be listened to.  But The Beatles changed that attitude partly just because they dared to include the lyrics to their songs on the back of the Sgt. Ppper’s LP, signaling that their lyrics were important and could be read as less than literature perhaps but more than just recyclable fluff.  In most pop situations the band was just there to back up the singers and often the singers were also the band.  Excellent lead guitar players like George Harrison, James Burton, and Hank Ballard (who played lead licks for the Beatles, Ricky Nelson, and Elvis respectively) and the incomparable Funk Brothers playing on Motown tunes were taken largely for granted and were not well known individually. 

“I went down to the crossroads…fell down on my knees…”

Cream was the first rock all-star band.  It had always been common to get some of the best players together for jazz albums, but here were three of the most skilled rock players joining forces.  None of them jumped around or cared about their image, but rather found huge commercial success relying on the music itself.  Eric Clapton was the first white guitarist who mastered blues guitar and brought it to the masses who had never heard of Muddy Waters, let alone Robert Johnson.  He became well known as guitarist for the Bluesbreakers, and over the years met most of the other luminaries of British Rock.  Bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker both had strong jazz backgrounds, with reputations for virtuosity not normally found in rock rhythm sections.  Often Baker sounds as though he hits the cymbals in precisely the same spot each time, and Bruce’s bass lines combine the swing of Paul Chambers with the melodiousness of Paul McCartney but in many ways creating a unique, authoritative, and daring style which influenced every bass player who heard him.   He showed that the bass, especially in trio situations, had a huge roll to play.  Baker had chops comparable to Tony Williams and the ferocity of Max Roach but raised the bar even higher, setting the stage for physically intimidating drumming of the future.  Without Jack Bruce, there may not have been a Chris Squire or Geddy Lee, and without Ginger Baker, there would not have been a John Bonham. 

“In the White Room with black curtains in the station…

I wait in this place where the sun never shines…

Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves.”

Even though Bruce and Baker were completely incompatible personally, they both wanted to play with Clapton, who proclaimed them “the cream” of British rock musicians.  Since they only recorded three albums worth of studio material until their final album “Goodbye,” they would stretch out their tunes like jazz musicians and unintentionally started the wave of improvisational blues-influenced bands.  The combination of Clapton’s blues guitar with a martial rhythm section changed rock forever.  Suddenly, it was very cool to be a drummer or bass player, to say nothing of the cult of the lead guitarist as a god among gods.    Bruce in particular had a voice unlike any other in music, a loud, sonorous baritone with a huge range that could sing any style, while still playing brilliant bass and even harmonica.  His composing is also innovative despite the occasional psychedelic meltdown.   Unfortunately, what brought the band down after only about two years were clashing personalities and somewhat valid criticism that they not really a band at all but three soloists.  They started the British blues-rock revolution which included the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Jeff Beck Group, and hit its zenith with the almighty Led Zeppelin.  They also influenced The Police, who took the exact reverse approach than Cream, using reggae instead of blues and using as few notes as possible.

“I found out today...we’re going wrong…”

For decades, Clapton have fans waited for him to play with the explosive energy he displayed with Cream. For years he focused on singing good songs, all the while playing interesting but rarely hot solos.  Those solos are here in spades!  It was fitting that their reunion would open at the Royal Albert Hall, where they played their final show in November of 1968.  Selling out a whole week of shows far in advance, this DVD set sounds and looks excellent.  In some ways they are not what they used to be, Bruce and Baker not aging too well physically, but still playing with bravado and Clapton once again feeding off the energy of the others to catapult the music far beyond what three mortal men should be able to do.  Most tempi are a tad pedestrian and several great Cream tunes are omitted such as SWLABR and Tales of Brave Ulysses.  Bruce does sound great on the haunting We’re Going Wrong and Born Under a Bad Sign.  Stormy Monday and Outside Woman Blues are not on any greatest hits collection and are welcome additions here.  We do have to sit through Baker’s absurd Pressed Rat and Warthog, but Crossroads sounds great even if it is only a shadow of the famous version from Wheels of Fire.   So it is great to see and hear this great trio again, but fans should be realistic in their expectations.  Footage of the 1968 farewell concert, which is also available on DVD, shows more energy but clearly the band was worn out and probably suffering from drug side effects which compromised their playing.  This concert fortunately does not have those problems  It is the same musicians but now matured and using modern equipment, playing classics like a jazz band would. 

“I’ve been waiting so long…to be where I’m going…

In the Sunshine of Your Love.”

One of the best features of this DVD is that the show starts immediately without the usual FBI warnings, previews, etc. that pollute so many other releases.  We are briskly run through the backstage area, and then we see our heroes take the stage.  The only other DVD that does this (to my knowledge) is the monumental Led Zeppelin release. 

Songlist:  Disc One:  I’m so Glad, Spoonful, Outside Woman Blues, Pressed Rat and Warthog, Sleepy Time Time, N.S.U., Badge, Politician, Sweet Wine, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Stormy Monday, Deserted Cities of the Heart, Born Under a Bad Sign, We’re Going Wrong, alternate takes of Sleepy Time Time and We’re Going Wrong.  Disc Two:  Crossroads, Sitting on top of the World, White Room, Toad, Sunshine of Your Love, Interviews, alternate take of Sunshine of Your Love. 

Video ****

A nice wide screen for rock’s first power trio!  Regularly changing camera angles and occasional three-way screens reminiscent of Woodstock make it interesting.  Lighting is good, and the picture is clear and sharp throughout. 

Audio ****

Dolby Stereo and DTS 5.1 both sound great, although in the 5.1 the audience noise is a tad louder than it should be coming from the rear speakers.  I had the same problem with the Rush in Rio set but Cream’s mix is much better.

Features ***

The long quote above is from Clapton, whose interview is a highlight of the features.  While there are no other features but the interviews, they are extensive and revealing.  For example, Bruce explains that I Feel Free was too difficult to reproduce, and Baker says that they never did Badge because it was on the last album and the band had broken up by then.  They admit they were overwhelmed by how great the audience reception was for these shows.   In the old days, they were very free-spirited and cavalier, but now they are all grown up and are actually taking the shows more seriously today.

Summary :

An outstanding DVD set containing some of the last shows of the original rock power trio. 

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