Cream: Royal Albert Hall, London, May 2-3-5-6, 2005 [DVD]
After a long absence, God... err, Eric Clapton has returned, and along with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, has resurrected the deity known as Cream.
Hell froze over.
What other logical explanation can there be for three strong-willed, talented, and stubborn individuals to reunite after a 37-year hiatus (save for one Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction)? When Eric Clapton, who was still friendly with both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, threw out the idea of the trio known as Cream reuniting to do a few shows at the last venue they inhabited before their acrimonious split, Bruce was all for it. Baker was not, initially -- quite reluctant, in fact -- but eventually, he came around. (It was he and Bruce who were most at odds when the band was together.) So after a few tentative meetings and one major blowup during the first week of tour rehearsals, B, B, & C were able to resurrect their simpatico (of sorts) which made them one of the most unique bands in the late '60s.
Cream's last shows in 1968 were at the Royal Albert Hall in London, so it was just that the reunion shows should be held there as well. The band took over a year of rehearsals to be able to get the stamina level up to do four shows in five nights, each running 2:15. And when the three were satisfied with how they sounded, they booked May 2, 3, 5 & 6 of 2005 at the Hall to bring back memories of acid-filled days of blues-jazz hybrid, with rock and roll being the glue that held it all together. Certainly older and wiser, the three took the stage for those four amazing evenings and played their guts out. (The band then flew across the pond to do three nights in the last U.S. venue they played in 1968, New York's Madison Square Garden in October, 2005.)
With only a long horizontal bar of psychedelic light patterns flashing throughout the show as their visual support, Cream proved that it was all about the music. What the DVD shows is highlights from those four nights in London. Each song has the night it was taped on the screen right at the beginning. Otherwise, it's a straight-ahead concert movie. Shots of the band are interspersed (infrequently, thank goodness) with shots of the crowd, all of whom were smiling. Baker, Bruce and Clapton were each attentive to giving the other band members lots of shout-outs, and the whole DVD became one big musical love fest.
This is not to say that it was sappy or wimpy by any stretch of the imagination. The music was as powerful as it was in the '60s, save for the sobriety. Clapton has never ever played this good since the early days of his solo career. Bruce's bass and Baker's drums were spot on, and Baker's solo turn on "Toad" wasn't as painful to watch as most drum solos tend to be. What he lacks in power, he makes up for in smarts and style. Bruce and Clapton's vocals were just fine (hey, they are 37 years older than when they first started this), and the song selection was a Cream fan's dream. The only notable omissions from the set list (the same set was performed in the same order all four nights in London) were "I Feel Free", "Strange Brew", and "Tales of Brave Ulysses". (That last one was added to the set list for the New York shows.)
Watching Clapton solo is the biggest treat of the film, and "Stormy Monday" just proves that when the man is motivated, he is STILL one of the best rock guitarists around. His work on "Badge", a song the band never performed live before the London shows, is simply phenomenal. Bruce hits all the right notes on bass and vocally (a little straining is forgivable), and Baker kept things rather fluid and kept his tangents to a minimum. The astonishing thing, by comparison to those shows in the '60s, is the actual interplay between the three parts. Opener "I'm So Glad" brought smiles to all three faces -- and they weren't just for show. The troika seemed to genuinely ENJOY being together on stage, which reflected in the music, and came shining through for those four lucky audiences who were a part of this whole spectacle.
Extras on the DVD are minimal. There are extra performances of "Sleepy Time Time", "We're Going Wrong", and "Sunshine of Your Love", and there are excellent interviews with all three band members. But this is not about finding extra goodies -- it's all about resurrecting a sound and an attitude.
There might be some nitpicking about the three being more restrained than they were back in the old days. But all three gents are up there in age, and to get through something like this, where old egos had to be shoved aside and a lengthy show needed a year to rehearse, some things are going to be sacrificed. What wasn't sacrificed was the power and the essence that Cream was able to conjure up as though they hadn't had a 37-year hiatus. Cream fans, curiosity seekers, and '60s diehards will find little fault with watching their heroes recreate the sounds that dared to be different at the time. Baker, Bruce, and Clapton have astonishingly proved that with enough willpower and moxie, you CAN go home again.