In May, the pioneering British power trio Cream played their first shows in thirty-seven years at London's Royal Albert Hall. On October 24th, guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker extended their improbable reunion, opening a sold-out three-night stand at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Not much had changed since the spring: Clapton was still dressed down, in a blue shirt and jeans, and running his Fender Stratocaster through a modest battery of two small Fender amps and one shoulder-high speaker cabinet: a far cry from the great wall of Marshalls that were his trademark in Cream's late-Sixties lifetime. Baker wore a Cream T-shirt and said a few words on behalf of the merchandise stands after his Cockney-fishmonger rap in "Pressed Rat and Warthog" ("Pressed Rat and Warthog have reopened their shop in the lobby . . ."). And the set list was virtually unchanged from the Albert Hall, with the single addition of "Tales of Brave Ulysses" from Disraeli Gears, sandwiched between the heavy crawl of "Sleepy Time Time" and the bright blues-pop of "N.S.U."
But there were notable differences in atmosphere, flattering and otherwise. Where the sound at the Albert Hall was clean and only moderately loud -- lacking the earthquake force of the live half of 1968's Wheels on Fire but revealing more of the jazz conversation inside the tumult -- the booming Garden P.A. fattened Clapton's tart curls and prolonged Strat screams in "Spoonful" and "Politician" and put heart-attack heft on Baker's tom-tom bombs and double-kick-drum outbursts. Unfortunately, the haunted vertigo of "We're Going Wrong" -- a nightly highlight in London, as Baker's 6/8 rumble on the toms and Clapton's climbing strum pressed Bruce's clear vocal pleading to peaks of agony -- was turned into grey soup by the airplane-hangar echo in New York.
Ironically, in a season when the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and U2 have all come through the Garden with thunder-and-lightning stage shows, the greatest shock of Cream's performance was the understated charge of three superior musicians simply playing. When they truly connected -- in the three-way-solo passage of "Sweet Wine" and the runaway simplicity of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" -- Cream lived up to the expectations they left behind nearly forty years ago. And there was an obvious combined thrill of discovery as Cream stepped outside the old songbook for the T-Bone Walker blues "Stormy Monday." Soloing with fire and confidence, Clapton stood toe to toe with Bruce at the foot of Baker's drum riser: the three intently facing each other, genuinely reunited in technique and delight.
One sore point: The light show behind them was a horror, a cornball digital recreation of the throbbing blobs of a vintage Fillmore light show. The crude pixilation and garish Peter Max-style hues -- a minor distraction in the Victorian splendor of the Albert Hall -- looked cheap and cheesy in the big black hole of the Garden, insulting to the music and its original era. Either do it with oils and lamps, or don't do it at all.