Cream, Rising to the Occasion at Madison Square Garden

Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in New York on Monday, performing again as the '60s supergroup Cream 37 years after their last U.S. concert.
Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in New York on Monday, performing again as the '60s supergroup Cream 37 years after their last U.S. concert. (By Brendan Mcdermid -- Reuters)
By Peter Eisner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

NEW YORK -- Cream, the fabled rock supertrio, opened three nights of performances at Madison Square Garden on Monday, 37 years after its last U.S. concert in Baltimore in November 1968. Those were the days, before men walked on the moon, before tickets cost $175 each for the nosebleed seats and before the fans had lost a lot of their hair.

Vintage Cream was Eric Clapton, then a veteran of the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and already a guitar virtuoso; Jack Bruce, a bass player and mellow vocalist from the group Manfred Mann; and Ginger Baker, a veteran rock drummer. The British group produced four albums between 1966 and 1968 before it broke up, perhaps tired of touring, bickering about musical direction or, according to Baker, because the music was just too loud.

The first phase of the reunion, largely Clapton's idea, was a four-day gig at London's Royal Albert Hall in May. But the New York visit, billed as the group's only appearance in North America, is more than a nostalgia trip.

In 2005, Cream has reproduced its ability to create a remarkably full sound with just three members and no synthesizers. To accomplish this, Clapton often steps back from the microphone, interweaving rhythm, wah-wah and other electronics with lead licks, singing harmony when Bruce handles a lot of the front vocals. Baker, meanwhile, pounds away on economical lines, keeping the tempo up while playing off the lyrics and the sound.

Cream's driving, powerful sound isn't old, even though Clapton, the youngest of the three, turned 60 this year. This is a tight, disciplined band that hits its marks. You can easily match the new set to the old records and realize that the familiar songs are transformed, especially by Clapton's deeply nuanced voice and decades of blues guitar mastery.

No question that there were some specific points of nostalgia. There were two details for aficionados: First, there was Baker's lead-in to the second verse of "Badge," in which he plays a break of triplets on the drums and crashes down on the cymbal before Bruce and Clapton start playing again. Another classic moment was the start of Clapton's guitar solo in "Sunshine of Your Love," beginning as he always did with a line of "Blue Moon" before improvising the rest.

Cream was always a synthesis of blues, jazz-inspired improvisation and rock-and-roll. In the first category, the band introduced legions of '60s and '70s teenagers to Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," Skip James's "I'm So Glad" and Willie Dixon's "Spoonful," all of which it played in the concert. Mixed in on Monday were their own classics, "White Room," "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Clapton said they'd never played it live until that very night) and "Sunshine of Your Love."

Bruce, who has had health problems in recent years, was in good voice most of the time, and played harmonica solos on "Rollin' and Tumblin' " and "Sitting on Top of the World." Modern technology let him prance about the stage more than a bass player usually does.

One departure from the Cream formula was Clapton's version of "Stormy Monday," by T-Bone Walker, which he often plays in his solo tours. Clapton took over with a textured blues vocal and classy solo line, while Bruce and Baker became sidemen for the moment. "Eric Clapton," Bruce called out with deference at the end of the song, "an all-around great guy."

Monday night's show was almost identical to the performance on the newly released DVD of the group's four nights in May at Albert Hall, down to Baker's bantering, as idiosyncratic as always. He performed his novelty spoken number, "Pressed Rat and Warthog," and, as if reading from the London script, even hawked sales of Cream T-shirts, which were $35 apiece.

That may not be a high price for many people attending the Madison Square Garden dates, some of whom were vying for scalped seats up front at more than $4,000 each.

An overview of the crowd from the comparatively cheap seats showed people of means, mostly males, many bald pates and few people of color. But there were younger folks, too.

Alex Minteer, 17, a high school senior from Richmond, R.I., came with his father, Eric, 45. "Awesome," he said, describing the show. "It was his idea to come here. But I like a lot of the old bands. It's my preferred style of music."

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