PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Still Rising to the Top
Q: Which of the greatest bands from the ‘60s recently took the stage for a long-anticipated, live performance with all of its original members?
A: Uh, Cream?
Wait a minute, Cream? As in Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton? Rock’s original super-group? The same Cream which spent nearly a quarter century apart before briefly reconvening at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” Cream?!
After years of public clamoring for an official reunion, or even a spoonful of gigs, lucky fans got the chance to see the band perform together, first at Royal Albert Hall in May 2005, then on consecutive October nights at Madison Square Garden. Based upon the stellar reviews of the RAH shows, expectations (and ticket prices) were high for the NYC trifecta, as concertgoers hoped that Cream could catch lightning in a bottle one final time.
Venturing forth to the second evening’s festivities, I was struck by a surreal moment: the Garden more closely resembled an AARP convention than a classic rock concert. Graying boomers and aging burnouts congregated en masse to celebrate their collective youth, digging deep to buy both seats and the obligatory Cream logo merchandise. David Letterman was in the mix, the consummate well-to-do middle-ager, clad in regular-guy flannel shirt and khakis, ticket in hand, strolling through the security checkpoint with the rest of the faithful. Can’t say I ever saw Dave at any other gigs I’ve attended, but hey, this is Cream.
As the Garden seats began to fill, the night’s surreal nature continued. One would think a band of Cream’s magnitude calls for an elaborate stage set-up, replete with stacks of amps and psychedelic memorabilia to set the tone. Quite the opposite was true, as the stage was modestly equipped, hearkening back to the days before gratuitous walls of sound became commonplace. And as unassuming as the stage and equipment configuration was, the appropriateness was not lost when the legendary group turned out to be similarly understated.
At 8:30pm, the great ones took the stage, casually dressed and methodical in their entrances, but exuding a palpable sense of history. Clapton, strapped on his black Strat, decidedly business-like, and the antithesis of his earlier “God” persona; bespectacled Baker looked professorial behind his kit; Bruce, thinner and somewhat weary, fired up his four-string. This is what we had waited decades for, the re-emergence of rock royalty, and a time portal back to a simpler (but far more dynamic) musical era. Could the glorious ‘60s be replicated by this twilight version of Cream? It was yet to be seen.
Opening with “I’m So Glad”, the band spent two hours proving that it still possessed the magic that defined its past. The classics shared equal time with lesser known songs, as Bruce’s vocals were crisp and energized, while complimented by Clapton’s effortless fretwork. The rollicking extend jam of “Sweet Wine” fit perfectly with the smoldering “Stormy Monday”; Bruce’s feisty harmonica propelled “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” while Clapton led the way on slowed versions of “Badge” and “Crossroads”. The two shared lead duties on a fine rendition of “White Room”. As for Baker, his skills have barely eroded with the passage of time; he gave a veritable clinic in precision drumming, while stealing the evening with his set-closing trademark “Toad”.
Roughly a dozen and a half songs, and one encore tune, (“Sunshine of Your Love”, what else?)... and then it was over. Was it vintage Cream, the one ingrained in our collective musical psyche? No, but realistically, how could it have been? The performance was everything one could expect, with the rekindling of the creative spark that Baker, Bruce and Clapton shared in their youth. For those of us born too late to experience the Cream of the ‘60s, the Garden show was a singular opportunity to spend an evening in the presence of the shadow of that greatness. More importantly, it gave us a fleeting glimpse of what was, and evidence of Cream’s stature as one of music’s most important groups.