Live Review: Cream Rise in London

Rock & Roll Hall of Famers rediscover blues ancient and modern at Royal Albert Hall

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On November 26, 1968, Cream walked off the stage at London's Royal Albert Hall for what they fully expected to be the last time. Exhausted by infighting and non-stop touring, their rare instrumental telepathy creeping into formula and all but obliterated by arena-PA volume, rock's first supergroup -- guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, already individual stars in Britain when they formed in 1966 -- held rock's first super-wake in this majestic Victorian concert hall, playing two final shows of what Clapton once described as "Blues Ancient and Modern" to audiences that literally begged them not to go, with massed cries of "God save the Cream!"

Those prayers were finally answered, thirty-seven years later. At 8:10 p.m. on May 2nd, Clapton, Bruce and Baker walked back on to that stage to a standing, delirious, disbelieving ovation, opening the first of four shows this week at the Albert Hall with the perfect, galloping sentiment: the Skip James blues "I'm So Glad," from their first album, Fresh Cream. This was, admittedly, not the breakneck, juggernaut Cream of the concert half of 1968's Wheels of Fire or the post-mortem live albums. Clapton's old wall of Marshall cabinets was gone; he played through just two small tube amps, with a Leslie for that majestic bridge lick in "Badge." And Clapton has long since exchanged the assaultive snarl of his original Cream weapons -- the Gibson SG and Les Paul -- for the cleaner ring and bite of a Stratocaster. There was less assault in the music, but more air, which allowed the original swing in Cream's power blues to come through: the conversational way Bruce improvised inside Clapton's slalom runs and grinding notes during the instrumental breaks in "Spoonful" and "N.S.U."; the taut fire of Baker's snare and tom-toms under Clapton's solo in "Sleepy Time Time."

Clapton's brief remarks to the crowd suggested lingering nerves and fears of overexpectation. "Thanks for waiting all these years," he said, after a rare live outing of "Outside Woman Blues," from Disraeli Gears. "I think we're going to do every song we know," quickly noting, "We'll play them as well as we can." But when Clapton pointed out that "the slings and arrows of misfortune cut us down in our prime," Baker was having none of it. "What do you mean?" he interjected with needling glee. "This is our prime."

It was a bold claim for a band, which, with the exception of a brief reunion set at their 1991 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, had not played together in nearly four decades. And much that was once remarkable and unique to Cream -- the fusion and compression of jazz and blues dynamics into pop song; the instrumental democracy of the power trio; the license to jam at great length -- is now established rock & roll language and tradition. But the deliberate tautness of the performances tonight, sounding at first uncomfortably close to overrestraint, was probably closer to the way Cream first heard themselves in 1966 and early '67 -- a modern R&B trio of equal, virtuoso soloists; blues purists with futurist nerve -- before the live extremes and routines of '68 took over.

Many of the highpoints were in the details: the odd bent and time of Bruce's and Clapton's twinned riffing in "Politician" against Baker's straight, anchoring motion; the heightened tension of Bruce's high, choking bass notes and Baker's tom-tom bombs under Clapton's solo in "Sweet Wine." In a stunning exhumation of the trance-rock gem "We're Going Wrong," from Disraeli Gears, Baker's mallets rolled across his tom-toms in liquid 6/4 time as Bruce sang with operatic despair over the simple, climbing tension of Clapton's strumming. And at the end of the encore, "Sunshine of Your Love," Clapton, Bruce and Baker locked into a powerful, mounting suspense, a droning, one-chord crescendo that, frankly, climaxed too soon with a final reentry into that immortal riff.

The only venture outside Cream's recorded library was a cover of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday," a Clapton vocal-and-guitar showcase that made clear how the balance of power and celebrity has shifted since he was the band's junior genius and the quiet mediator between Bruce's and Baker's combative tempers. "Crossroads" also bore the matured Clapton's touch, taken at the country-funk gait he has long favored in his own shows. But the surprise of the night was the focused power and undiminished strength of Baker, who sat ramrod straight as he fired off precise, provocative accents -- cymbal stings, snare gunshots and double-kick-drum eruptions -- without loosening his grip on the pulse. Even in the inevitable "Toad," he soloed with startling control, never breaking the snapping, high-hat beat as his sticks flew over the rest of his kit.

And it was Baker who left the audience with the defining image of the night: stepping out from behind his drums after "Sunshine of Your Love" with a huge smile, pumping his fists in the air like a former championship boxer who had just gone twenty rounds with history -- and won.

The set list:

I'm So Glad
Spoonful
Outside Woman Blues
Pressed Rat and Warthog
Sleepy Time Time
N.S.U.
Badge
Politician
Sweet Wine
Rolling and Tumbling'
Stormy Monday
Deserted Cities of the Heart
Born Under a Bad Sign
We're Going Wrong'
Crossroads
Sitting on Top of the World
White Room
Toad

Sunshine of Your Love