Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 6, 2005)
Too many people throw around the phrase “once in a lifetime” without it really matching the situation at hand. However, occasionally we do find events that truly fall into that category. The 2005 reunion of rock “supergroup” Cream matches the criteria to be called “once in a lifetime” without much room for debate.
Cream consisted of guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. All had already made names for themselves elsewhere, which is why Cream were considered to be a “supergroup”; the participants were the “cream” of the crop at their instruments. The band formed in 1966 but didn’t last long. They churned out a mere four studio albums in their two years together, though a couple of those - Wheels of Fire and Goodbye - included a lot of live material as well.
Actually, Goodbye wouldn’t hit the shelves until 1969, though the band split in late 1968. They played their last shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall (RAH) in November of that year, and then the three men went on to other things.
Not coincidentally, Cream chose the RAH for the site of their first concerts together in 37 years. Sure, they’d performed together over that span, most notably at their 1993 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction. However, the RAH shows in 2005 offered the general public their first opportunity to see the band live since the late Sixties.
And if that doesn’t qualify as “once in a lifetime”, I don’t know what does. Though since the band will soon play dates in New York’s Madison Square Garden, maybe we’re in “twice in a lifetime” territory. Whatever the case, it’s pretty damned rare.
Culled from four nights of concerts, a DVD entitled Cream: Royal Albert Hall includes a mix of performances from the May 2, 3, 5 and 6 shows. Almost all of the 19 tunes come from their four studio albums. 1966’s debut Fresh Cream brings us “Sleepy Time Time”, “NSU”, “Spoonful”, “Sweet Wine”, “I’m So Glad”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Toad”, while 1967’s Disraeli Gears presents “Sunshine of Your Life”, “Outside Woman Blues”, and “We’re Going Wrong”.
From 1968’s Wheels of Fire, we discover “White Room”, “Sitting on Top of the World”, “Pressed Rat and Warthog”, “Politician”, “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Crossroads” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart”. Only the George Harrison co-composed “Badge” appears off of 1969’s Goodbye. In addition, Cream cover “Stormy Monday”, a track Clapton has played live in the past. These 19 songs encompass everything they played during the four shows, as apparently the setlist didn’t vary from night to night.
The DVD presents performances from the span of Cream’s stint at the RAH, but its subtitle of “May 2, 3, 5, 6” is somewhat misleading. 13 of the 19 tracks come from the final show on the 6th, while the 3rd includes six numbers. The other three emanate from the 5th. All we see of the 2nd is a quick shot in which they talk to the audience. Perhaps there were technical problems with the recordings from the 2nd, or maybe the band just wasn’t up to snuff that night. Nonetheless, it’d have been nice to see more from that concert, if just for historical value.
Since I’ll attend the final of Cream’s three MSG shows, I was eager to check out this DVD in advance. Actually, my lack of terrific enthusiasm for Cream made me a little reticent to watch it. For more than 20 years, I’ve maintained a lukewarm interest in Clapton’s career, and my feelings toward Cream fell into the same category. Actually, I think I was less fond of Clapton as part of Cream than as a solo artist of member of Derek and the Dominos.
Given that background, why did I decide to attend one of the MSG concerts? Mostly for the historical significance of the event. It’s hard to pass up something like this – at least for a certified concert junkie like myself. Besides, it’s not like I dislike Cream. If, say, the original Jefferson Airplane reunited, I’d have no desire to attend. But I do like Cream – just not to a tremendous degree.
That left me with a little fear that I’d check out this DVD, not enjoy what I heard/saw, and then not much care about the upcoming show. Happily, I needn’t have worried, as the reunited Cream soars in these performances.
As I mentioned, the DVD comes with a subtitle of “May 2, 3, 5, 6”. However, it should read “The Resurrection of Eric Clapton”. When last seen in DVD Land, Clapton had turned into a massive bore. 2001’s One More Car, One More Rider showed a blues rocker who’d become little more than a purveyor of middle-of-the-road mush.
Don’t look for that sluggish axe-man here. Many rock fans know of Clapton’s legendary reputation – the dude was once referred to as “God” in some famous graffiti – but wonder why he earns such praise given the tedium of so much of his solo work.
These DVDs remind us of Clapton’s true talents. Baker and Bruce sound great and add fine support to the performances, but make no mistake: Clapton owns the stage. He provides consistently incendiary guitar work throughout the show. I doubt Clapton has been this involved in his playing for many years. From start to finish, he rocks and elevates the music to a very high level.
I definitely like the basic nature of the stage production. We find no embellishment for Cream. It’s three old dudes and nothing else – no horns, no keyboards, no backup singers. This forces the musicians to rely on each other and focus on the tunes. That works tremendously well and generates excellent performances.
Director Martyn Atkins also shows admirable restraint in regard to the production of the DVD. Given the lack of visual dynamics onstage, it must be tempting to “enliven” the project with quick cuts and gimmicky effects. Atkins essentially resists this. Occasionally we get a useful three-panel approach that shows three different camera angles on screen all at once. This is less effective because it makes each one tiny, but Atkins features it infrequently enough that it embellishes the program and doesn’t distract.
I do object to some of Atkins’ shot choices. We see more than a few instances of clips during which the camera operator still seeks focus and the right angle. I suppose Atkins includes these to give the show a more rough-hewn, less slick feel, but it doesn’t work. Instead, you simply wonder why they’d included so many messy shots.
Don’t expect those to significantly mar your enjoyment of the presentation, however. A mostly concise and tasteful depiction of some solid concerts, Cream: Royal Albert Hall is a winner. This is a satisfying concert DVD.