“It was incredibly moving. And then it just felt completely natural, like we just… we have a kind of residency, you know … Once every forty years or so, we get together at the Albert Hall.” — Jack Bruce
Cream—Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, Eric Clapton on guitar and Ginger Baker on drums—was only active from 1966 to 1968, and the band released just four albums. The trio reunited for the first time in a series of shows in May of 2005. These once in a lifetime concerts were filmed and although a two disc DVD version had been released previously, they are now available in high definition on a single-disc Blu-ray edition from Eagle Rock.
First things first, the sound is phenomenal! The performances were initially recorded in Dolby Digital, so it’s expected to be good, but this is the first time I’ve heard a Blu-ray music release has caused me to truly appreciate the audio improvements over standard DVD. In the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix everything is clear, full, and distinct. You can hear every nuance of Clapton’s solos, each subtle texture Baker brings, Bruce’s bass rumbles rich and strong, and all their vocals are crisp and clean. There’s naturally some noise from the crowd, but it isn’t anything that takes away from what’s happening on the stage, in fact, it may add to the experience.
It’s as close to actually having been in the Royal Albert Hall you can get. The 2.0 mix is really good too, with maybe a touch of distortion in the higher frequencies.
In addition to praising the sound, a nod must be given, as well, to the excellent editing. There were four nights of shows, and Cream: Royal Albert Hall draws from all of them fairly equally and quite seamlessly. Were it not for clothing changes and the occasional, subtle, date displayed briefly at the bottom of your screen, you might not notice that it isn’t all of one piece. That’s not to say that Cream plays by the numbers, far from it. This is not a trite run-through of tired old songs by three old men. This is Cream, reinvigorated. All of these songs somehow magically manage to sound as new, fresh and powerful as they likely did in 1967, if not more so.
“I Feel Free” is absent, as is “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, but all in all, the set is a fairly comprehensive. It includes songs that Cream never performed live in the band’s original heyday, including Baker’s “Pressed Bat and Warthog”, which is clearly a favorite with the crowd, and a stunningly majestic “Badge”. It’s not really possible to pick highlights from this 19-song set, but “Badge” is up there for its sheer dynamic effect. “Stormy Monday” rates highly on the strength of the way Clapton’s guitar tone fills the hall. The trifecta of “White Room”, with the band members clearly enjoying each others’ company as Bruce and Clapton trade verses; “Toad”, which any aspiring musician, let alone drummer, should study; and the closer, “Sunshine of Your Love”, for which there aren’t adequate accolades, is musically amazing and spiritually life-affirming all at once.
Cream: Royal Albert Hall‘s menu contains the option to play the two hours of concert performances as one piece, or to access the track list and play individual songs directly. Blu-ray bonus materials include alternate performances of “Sleepy Time Time”, “We’re Going Wrong” and “Sunshine of Your Love”. Interview clips with Baker, Bruce and Clapton address the reformation; talk about the way the music sounds fresh now, rather than like a nostalgic tribute band outing, and how the music is what is and always has been the most important; and discusses the chemistry of these three musicians, their sense of timing and how their pure passion for playing makes it easy.
It’s noted in the interviews that Cream isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll band, which might come as a surprise to some, but it’s true. Baker says, “Two of us are jazz musicians and Eric’s a blues player. Well, blues and jazz is the same thing, you know. Eric doesn’t think he’s a jazz player. I do! So does Jack.” So, Cream: Royal Albert Hall isn’t just for Cream fans, or Clapton fans, or even fans of British blues rock. It’s for people who love music. Any music.