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Cream - Royal Albert Hall London DVD Review

by Travis Becker

Few events or individuals through time have posed any serious risk of destroying the already frayed and tattered legacy of rock and roll. If a serious threat exists in the here and now it just might be the geriatric parasitism choking the life out of both the art and the revenue of rock. Sure, Mick Jagger has a right to continue to strut around the stage well into his sixties, all the while demanding hundred dollar tickets, but let's face it-no one's twisting his arm at this point and that money could be going to up and comers here to save the face of our beloved music. That dilemma laid bare, the Cream reunion DVD arrives with some trepidation. After all, the group has been going their separate ways for over ten times the span of time the group was even together. That's a lot of time to be getting further apart on those creative differences. Rhino Records involvement should have been a clue to the contrary, however, and the entire experience is both a pleasant surprise and a sad reminder of lost potential for the three uber-talented members of the psychedelic pioneering original super group. 

Filmed over a four night stand at London's Royal Albert Hall, Rhino's 2005 DVD finds all three original members of Cream together for the first time in a long time. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker all appear to have regained their youthful vigor for rock and blues, although not their youthful appearances. Clapton in particular sounds better than he has in years, loose and rollicking, and it's great to hear him playing some rock and roll again after a decade-plus obsession with blues standards and acoustic, "adult contemporary" material. He solos throughout and his playing sounds as good as it did back then, but in surround sound. Bruce's voice has held up remarkably well and he still plays the jack-of-all-trades better than anyone as he lays down some killer harmonica on top of his always top notch bass playing. Baker is the highlight, though. Anyone who checked out his contribution to the Masters of Reality in the nineties knows he can adapt to almost any style and always plays with signature creativity, unmatched in the history of rock. He's the one drummer who can truly play the drums as a lead instrument, and he does on "Pressed Rat and Warthog" which he also sings.

The first disc showcases the band rolling through a number of tunes from their too-truncated catalog and a few blues numbers tossed in just for the sake of authenticity. "Rollin and Tumblin" and "Stormy Monday" both accentuate Clapton's newfound enthusiasm, but find him grasping too tightly to familiar straws. He stretches out a little more on "Badge" and "Spoonful" but the fun doesn't really get going until disc 2. The concert staple, "Crossroads" kicks things off and sounds like the only version ever committed to tape. The band's two biggest hits, "Sunshine of Your Love" and "White Room" are also here, sandwiched between a cool version of "Toad" reminiscent of the live version from Wheels of Fire.

It is a little bit hard on the DVD to get past the fact that Cream has been on the shelf a while and may be just a tad past its expiration date. Clapton looks like his usual self, but we're used to seeing him, he's been in the mainstream all along. Bruce looks a bit rough around the edges however, and the camera seems to pan unnecessarily to Baker's shoes a lot. While they are nice wing-tips, paired with his black socks, it makes the experience feel a little too close to watching the entertainment at bingo night. Also, the songs are culled heavily from the May 6th performance, with several more coming from the May 3rd show. This leads one to believe that the chemistry wasn't instant. Add to that not one song pulled from May 2nd and the miracle seems a little more down to Earth. If that was the case, just give us the whole show from the 6th so it feels like one coherent concert without the confusing wardrobe changes.

Small complaints aside, Rhinos, as usual, has put together a stellar keepsake of this memorable week in rock history when one of the most important groups in history got back together and reminded us all what killer rock really sounds like. The DVD also includes the requisite extras, a few alternate performances, and interviews with the band members, misty-eyed all. Also, the double-DVD packaging is easily the best, most intelligent and frankly least fragile design I have ever encountered. Cream's reunion DVD is a great buy for those wanting a stroll down memory lane, or for those who just want a great sounding Cream live album for their collection, since most of the live material available from the band's original incarnation is of questionable sound quality at best. It's a fantastic little package, but Cream-where is "Tales of Brave Ulysses"? Probably on the May 2nd show. I guess there's always 2035. 

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