[28 May 2003]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When Cream came together in 1966, the band was perfectly positioned to add a different dimension to the burgeoning British music scene. Building upon the blues inspired output of the Animals and early Stones, Cream harnessed the talents of its members and coupled these attributes with a musical knowledge and sophistication rare for young musicians of the period. The result was a potent mix of rock, jazz, and American Delta blues far more advanced than anything previously heard. Cream’s music reflected the pedigree of its members; Eric Clapton had solidified his reputation as a guitar gunslinger from his previous work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall, while Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce had honed their craft with the Graham Bond Organisation. The three joined forces and in a relatively short time became the preeminent power trio, laying the groundwork for the future by creating a model for heavy blues based rock. In spite of a surprisingly brief tenure together, Cream was successful in creating a wealth of memorable work on stage and in the studio. The release of BBC Sessions adds to the band’s legacy by showcasing its capacity for brilliance even in spartan confines.
Recorded over a period of 14 months and seven separate gigs, BBC Sessions provides glimpses of the band in its developmental stages, and evidences its incredibly rapid coalescence into the ultimate heavy virtuoso group. Comprised of 22 tracks, the album travels at light-speed from shortly after the band’s formation in 1966 to several months shy of its breakup in 1968. The scope of the material runs the gambit from classic tunes to lesser-known compositions, and uniformly displays Cream’s remarkable musicianship throughout each recording session.
As Cream was firmly grounded in Southern blues based roots, the inclusion of various covers into its repertoire was not surprising. From Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” to Robert Johnson’s “Four until Late” and “Crossroads,” the BBC tapings show how adept the band was at interpreting the material with genuine feeling and authenticity. Cream’s members were not mere fans of the blues, but dedicated students, and their passion resonates from every note. The tracks “Born under a Bad Sign” and “Outside Woman Blues” are given similar treatment, resulting in some discernable slow burn heaviness.
Through the various recorded segments, it is obvious that Clapton has not lost touch with his earlier Yardbirds sensibilities as he exhibits exemplary guitar work in “Steppin’ Out”, “Lawdy Mama”, “Take It Back”, and “Cat’s Squirrel”. His playing is equally tremendous on the letter perfect version of “I’m So Glad”. While Clapton’s guitar is a featured component, the album is also complimented by four short interview snippets, where EC describes the band’s recording/tour plans, new releases, and his wonderfully candid admission of Cream’s preference for “Strange Brew’s” B side, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”.
Clapton’s contributions notwithstanding, the efforts of Bruce and Baker are similarly compelling. Powerful renditions of the Baker penned “Sweet Wine” and Cream stalwarts “Wrapping Paper”, “I Feel Free”, “SWLABR”, and “N.S.U.” feature rich vocals and solid rhythms, while the somber “We’re Going Wrong” is underscored by Baker’s thunderously precise drumming. Additionally, stripped down versions of “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Politician” may not have the luster of their more recognizable album counterparts, but display an intriguing sparseness not normally associated with the band’s work.
As BBC Sessions is a compilation of live recordings, the album is not without its faults. Sound quality is often inconsistent, ranging from excellent to somewhat muffled and tinny, while the agonizingly un-hip interviewer/announcer will make listeners cringe.
These two shortcomings can be overlooked however, as they are sufficiently outweighed by what the album offers to the existing Cream archive.
BBC Sessions is certainly a welcomed addition to the Cream catalogue, if not for its imperfect sound quality but rather its historical significance. Many of the featured tracks were at the time new releases or works in progress, all of which highlight the band’s efforts to perfect each song’s possibilities. Additionally, the recordings harken back to the days when bands were capable of making quality music without sprawling drum kits and massively overblown walls of amplified sound. In a way, the BBC recording sessions were to the ‘60s what MTV Unplugged became for the ‘90s, an ideal vehicle for groups to display their wares in a minimalist environment. For Cream, performing in the various BBC venues afforded them the opportunity to showcase their significant talents, and demonstrate how great the band truly was.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/cream-bbc/