The following is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of a Brian Wilson live review that this humble reporter penned in August for PopMatters:
There’s still four months to go and plenty of concerts to see before we flip the calendar to 2006, but it’s pretty safe to say that this humble reviewer has just witnessed the best concert of 2005.
26 Oct 2005: Madison Square Garden New York
Brian Wilson’s performance seemed a pretty sure bet. But then Brian met his match: another band that made its mark in the late ‘60s.
Cream (that would be Eric Clapton on guitar & vox, Jack Bruce on bass, harp & vox, and Ginger Baker on drums & vox) reformed briefly in 2004 to see if they could work together again, after a contentious break-up in the late ‘60s. Their goal was to do a few shows in 2005 at the last venue they ever played, the UK’s Royal Albert Hall. It was Clapton’s idea; he had remained friends with both of his bandmates (it was Bruce and Baker who were always said to be acrimoniously at odds). Bruce took little convincing, but Baker wasn’t quite so easy. But with only a single bump in the road—a meltdown during the first week of rehearsals—peace seems to have come to the band.
The London shows were so triumphant that they decided to do a few more in the last venue they played in the States: Madison Square Garden.
Anybody who has the CD and/or DVD of the Royal Albert shows has inadvertently seen the shows at the Garden. The songs were sequenced in the exact order they were that night, with one extremely memorable addition: New York got the “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, a song Clapton says the band had never done live before.
As with the CD and DVD, the trio started with “I’m So Glad”, goes on to “Spoonful”, and so on, wrapping everything up with the single encore “Sunshine of Your Love”. Of course, actually seeing the band perform lends an excitement and immediacy far beyond the CD or DVD.
Ok, so as far as actually “seeing” the performance, the DVD offers a better view than a seat a mile back from the stage. (There were two screens flanking the stage, showing all three members, but because of the psychedelic color board immediately behind them, the only one you could see clearly by looking at those screens was Baker.) Seeing, of course, is a big thing but FEELING is a totally separate entity.
I mention Clapton first, because if you are only a fan of his solo work, you’d never ever know he had this in him. His guitar playing was downright ferocious on the rock numbers, and bluesier than ever on the slower stuff (“Stormy Monday” was a particular standout in the latter category). It was like a snake shedding his middle-of-the-road, pop skin, the friendly boa everyone knows suddenly becoming a viper. Bruce and Baker were only too happy to give Clapton his space, and he rewarded his bandmates and fans time and time again. His solos were imaginative, yet they never got too far afield.
Bruce, one of the most underrated bassists of his time, didn’t lose a step. His bottom end coursed through your entire body like minor earthquakes, and he stayed in lockstep with Baker throughout the show (a tough thing at times, since Baker can go off on his own tangents). Baker did some exploratory pounding, but it never detracted from the song—instead, it added another flavor to this strange brew (ironically, “Strange Brew” was one of the songs they did not do).
I could say that the entire set, and all of the songs on it (19 in a tidy two hours) were standouts, but narrowing the focus, I’d go with “Sleepy Time Time”, a kick-ass version of “N.S.U.”, “Badge” (which had one of Clapton’s best solos of the evening), “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” (Bruce’s harp work was astounding), and of course, the classics “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love”. Again, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch.
(A note about the merch booth, which I always check out at any concert I attend: I brought $100 specifically for merch. A T-shirt ($40) and a lithograph poster ($60) made short work of my shopping expedition. And if you think that I was one of the only ones to lay down beaucoup bucks for this stuff, let’s just say that the two main merch tables situated right outside the Garden’s main entrance looked like a Saturday flea-market shopping spree. Cream’s gonna make a lot of money from these seven nights—that’s for certain.)
Unfortunately, no one knows if Baker, Bruce, and Clapton will ever play together, tour together, or do anything musically together ever again. For those who were lucky enough to capture at least one night of the seven will understand exactly what they saw, both from a historical and musical perspective.
What gave everyone hope was that the three gentlemen seemed to be truly enjoying their time together on stage, smiling and laughing at each other. Perhaps bygones truly can be bygones; maybe this might be the germ that pollinates into something bigger. Or perhaps the troika knew that there would only be these seven shows to do, and so why not go balls out? Regardless, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and IS, undoubtedly, the best concert of 2005—sorry, Brian.
// Notes from the Road
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