Judge Joel Pearce is thinkin' 'bout the love that you laid on his table.
"I never thought this would happen, but I'm glad it did."—Ginger Baker
Cream has an important place in the history and development of rock 'n' roll. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker belong on a short list with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix as innovators of the blues-rock sound. Unfortunately, their time together was short, lasting only two years in the late '60s. The opportunity to hear Cream get back together in 2005 is a very exciting proposition, marred only by the fear that they will no longer be able to deliver the goods after a 37-year hiatus.
The concert footage on this disc was recorded at four Royal Albert Hall shows in May 2005. At first glance, this is a very different Cream. There are three old men on the stage. Clapton looks to be in good shape, but Bruce is starting to look a bit like a decrepit Angus Young, and it looks as though they dragged Baker out of an old age home. I have to admit, I was a little worried as I sat down to watch the show. After all, Clapton's been doing a lot of namby-pamby soft rock and straight blues for the past decade or two, and I have no idea what the others have been up to. Did they remember how to rock?
The good news is, they still don't sound like a three piece band. Cream was always blessed with a rich, full sound, and that hasn't changed a bit. Baker lays down simple but solid blues beats, Clapton's guitar work can still dominate the stage with ease, and Bruce's bass riffs easily fill a room of any size. Although they lack some of the energy that they once had, and their more psychedelic numbers simply don't work the way they did in the '60s, this is still a great rock concert.
The disc opens with "I'm So Glad," one of the numbers that doesn't play as well as it did while flower power was all the rage. Cream used to have a raucous sound that was often on the razor's edge of losing control, which added a much-needed flair to the overly simplistic lyrics and arrangements of their music. Clapton's playing has become far more polished since then, as has Bruce's, and these songs are now revealed for what they have always been: The early work of musicians who would later go on to greatness. "Pressed Rat and Warthog" and "Deserted Cities of the Heat" suffer the same fate. They aren't necessarily bad tracks, but they played a lot better 40 years ago.
The majority of the songs still sound great, though, especially the ones that have a stronger blues influence. The rendition of "Spoonful" nails that raunchy, slow groove, and Bruce's voice has improved over the years. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" is a great cover as well. Eric Clapton's best work with Cream is still "Crossroads," which he nails once again in this set. He has also made some slight but wise changes to "Badge," which is different than it used to be, but just as good. I remember listening to a live recording of Ginger Baker's signature "Toad" from the original incarnation of Cream, which remains one of my favorite drum solos. Early in this set, it didn't look like he would still have it in him, but he does. "Toad" still rocks, and Ginger Baker can do in his 60s what many drummers could never do at any age. Many of the other numbers hold up just as well. Apparently the three members of the band spend quite a bit of time rehearsing for these shows, and it really does show.
This two disc DVD set is just as satisfying as the performance itself. The concert has been brilliantly shot, using a variety of angles and styles to capture the music. Shots roaming around Royal Albert Hall show the scope and size of the room, and the camera operators capture the players well in close-up. The video quality is sharp and clean, especially considering how hard it is to get good footage in a concert hall. The really important thing though, of course, is the sound. Regardless of what system you play this concert on, there is a format that will make you happy. The disc defaults to a crisp, clean Linear PCM track that does the job for music enthusiasts and those who prefer stereo for music. The other option is a monster of a DTS track, which maintains the crispness and adds a surprising amount of depth.
While this is hardly a fully loaded special edition set, there are several special features on the discs as well. The main extra here is a collection of alternate versions of some of the songs. Since the concert was recorded over four days, there are secondary versions of "Sleepy Time Time," "We're Going Wrong," and "Sunshine of Your Love." There are also interviews with the three members of the band in which they discuss the process of getting back together and performing again.
If you're a big fan of Cream, I don't have to tell you that this DVD is worth picking up. You already have it, and if you don't, you're already planning on buying it. You won't be disappointed. For casual fans, I also recommend a purchase. This is a rare opportunity to see a great band resurrected decades later, still able to pull out the stops and deliver a fantastic performance. Not all of the tracks have aged well, but it's still a far better concert than I expected. This set is a joy to blast on a big system, so your neighbors can enjoy it with you.
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