Cream, May 2005 on DVD

Ive been viewing the DVD release of Creams 2005 concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and really enjoying it. Rock-n-roll reunions can be hit-or-miss, with many groups never recapturing their original magic of their youth. While Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton dont sound exactly the same today as they did in the late 1960s, when Jimi Hendrix called them the best group in the world, but whatever their music might have lost in terms of spontaneity is made up for in polish.

All three of the musicians in Cream had already established themselves on the English blues before coming together, and the name they selected for their group asserted their clout among musicians. For a few short years, they were the premiere improvisational blues/rock group in the world. Jimi Hendrix may have been the most singularly devastating player and the San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service may have had more stamina, but Cream was the unit that excelled the most individually and collectively.

In the years since their acrimonious breakup, each of the players has led an interesting and erratic career. Clapton, obviously, has been the most commercially successful, but that doesnt necessarily make him the best; his orientation has been much more commercial than either Baker or Bruce, so its probably unfair to compare them on that level. Though he has gone through fallow periods due in part to drug problems, the drummer Ginger Baker can make a strong claim for having the most interesting post-Cream discography. He has recorded some pretty solid, fairly straight ahead jazz albums with the likes of Charlie Haden and James Carter, made some nice records with Afropop legend Fela Kuti, and also made a pair of fascinating world fusion albums with Bill Laswell and his crew; Laswell also brought him in for a memorable guest spot on Public Image Limiteds Album. Jack Bruce has also followed an interesting career arc, alternating avant garde and fusion jazz projects with artists like Carla Bley, John McLaughlin and Tony Williams with more mainstream rock albums, sometimes with Baker in tow.

So what happens when three artists with such divergent paths reunite for a series of gigs? They dont quite pick up where they left off, but they do seem to enjoy returning to their roots. Clapton does not revive the heavy, fuzz-laden tone of his youth, but he does play with a fire that hearkens back to those days and stands out in contrast to the more typically laconic approach he has employed since the 1970s. Bruce sticks more to the blues mode than he might in another setting, but that only focuses his improvisational talent that much more. And Baker just puts on a clinic, keeping perfect time while liberally sprinkling powerful and expressive fills.

Cream has played a series of concerts at Madison Square Garden since these shows were filmed. While it is unlikely that they will again become a regular working band, it is surely to be hoped that they embark on a larger tour. Any fan of improvisational music should be happy to witness a performance on this level.