Monday night I witnessed the Cream reunion at Madison Square Garden. My friend Gary nabbed two tickets slightly behind the stage - kinda like being in the wings, as they say in theater - about 30 yards from the band, and two hundred bucks cheaper. From my vantage and with my binoculars, I was able to make out the entire set list taped to Ginger's music stand. I even saw the music keys and who would count out the intros. Wow, backstage access right from the comfort of my arena seat. The drunk next to me was howling about the last six times he'd seen Clapton in Boston. He and his wife had saved some jack and soldiered down from their Boston suburb and according to them "were gonna boogie with Cream."
Thankfully the band didn't afford my new best friend many more stories as they soon strode out onto the darkened stage and launched into an airtight version of "I'm So Glad." The arena roared in appreciation.
But I was suspicious, right out of the gate. Gone was Clapton's psychedelic-painted Gibson SG, stack of Marshalls, paisley cuts, and cheeba smoke -- actually the guy behind us lit up some skunkweed, but that was a random act. Those "don't-bogart-that-joint" Fillmore days disappeared up in smoke years ago. There stood the power trio that shattered eardrums and blew my cousin's generation's collective minds, but 32 years later.
Clapton was not God-like on this night, as some Brit once painted on a wall in London. In fact, he was rather pedestrian. His black Strat was plugged into a few smallish Fender amps, engulfed by the huge stage behind him, and while I spied a Gibson in his rack of black Strats, it never made it out of the bullpen.
But he and his band mates, or rather his promoter, managed to pull some God-like ticket prices on Baby Boomer consumers who think that if you pay more, you get more. (Hell, I could buy you two week's worth of amazing live music for the price of one $350 ticket.)
There was no danger because the audience wasn't dangerous. There was no give and take. No real rock and roll swagger. Just an assortment of middle-aged guys in Dockers and button-downs with dull eyes waiting for their favorite song. But not tonight. Sure, the trio was synced, even though Mr. Clapton was not the center of attention. He seemed content to share the spotlight with his two colleagues. This was not the wildly inventive Cream of the '60s, but rather, three seasoned veterans re-interpreting their legacy through sober and musically experienced eyes, ears, and limbs.
Yes, Clapton showed that he was a mere musical mortal on this night. Many critics feel he's evolved into one of the greatest living white blues guitarists of his generation, and one could argue that was evident in his rendition of "Stormy Monday," but I'd prefer to hear Bobby "Blue" Bland or even the Allman Brothers rip it live. It seemed an odd choice for an acid-rock band that had penned such psych-pop nuggets as "I Feel Free" or "Anyone for Tennis."
Ginger and Jack seemed the most inspired, as if they finally had the audience and the recognition both have sought in the huge shadow of Eric's long and winding career. (I'm not sure if they've played a venue this large since their original Cream days.) Ginger's spoken word vocal and loping drumbeat were mildly amusing on "Pressed Rat & Warthog." Against all odds his drum solo piece "Toad" was one of the show's highlights as he worked his double bass drum and deftly struck toms and snare in an impressive display of agility for a 65-year old suffering from arthritis. He looked pretty damn good for an ex-smack user, too.
And Jack Bruce's nimble fretwork and soaring vocals were powerful, displaying both control and confidence. His harp work was pretty hot on Muddy Water's classic "Rollin' & Tumblin'," with Clapton's deft slide guitar matching the bends and wails while Ginger kept the whole train a-rollin'.
"Spoonful" was one of the two-hour set's highlights, as Bruce's singing and playing were strong and convincing throughout as he strutted around his corner of his stage, smiling to his bass tech and mugging for his aging fans. And while "We're Going Wrong" was interesting, it felt strangely out of place where in context to the set list. It never lifted. In fact, the entire second half of the show nearly stalled.
The band and set hit a wall and the audience looked bored, waiting patiently for some revelatory moment. Perhaps the old guys on stage were just plain tired, jetlagged from the day's journey from the UK. After all, Jack had a chair to sit on whenever he felt the need.
I got up, fetched a $5 water, and quickly eyeballed the tour swag. $35 for a cotton T-shirt? C'mon guys, at $350 a ticket you should give 'em away. Or pretend it's Ginger Baker bobble-head doll day. Get some corporate sponsor to make up 200,000 of them and pass them out at the gigs.
But I only missed half of one song and made it back to my seat to be completely underwhelmed for the remainder of the set. "Crossroads" was too slow,"White Room" rather bland and limp, and their single encore, "Sunshine of Your Love," far too short. One of my favorites, "Strange Brew," was conspicuously MIA.
In the end, I imagine this unreasonably priced Cream reunion appealed to wannabe hip, wealthy Boomers who long to reclaim yesterday's ethos. But you can't do it. You can't go backwards. You can't reclaim that zeitgeist. Cream couldn't do it on stage and you can't do it in your $350 seats. Your kid's bands probably can, but your favorite aging, bloated bands can't. Once in a blue moon, they can hit a groove on a song or three, but not in a dangerous and inventive rock and roll way. Go see jazz if you want that spike.
And if you're a hardcore Clapton fan, I would direct you to one of the best music DVDs to hit the retail shelves in the last few years and one of the best Clapton offerings in ages -- Sessions for Robert J (Reprise). This is Clapton singing and playing his ass off; his loving homage to one of his idols, blues legend Robert Johnson. His band is awesome and he is inspired throughout. If you must see Cream, buy the Albert Hall DVD, but please don't expect inspiration.
If you want true inspiration, start looking for the next Clapton. Or go see the Allman Brothers and/or the Derek Trucks Band. Derek is the real-deal. Hey, do you think his parents named him after one of Clapton's greatest bands and greatest releases, Derek & the Dominoes? Go figure, maybe God has come full circle in guitar paradise.
Converge is the Word!
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!
Brutal! solid review... Feels like I was there and disappointed - keep up the amazing work!