Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cream Rises or Goes Flat and Dry


Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker , forever known as the stellar power trio Cream from that drear and diffuse decade we term "The Sixties", staged a short reunion tour in 2005 . I was a Cream partisan, a newly minted blues fan, someone who debated with other mid-teen zealots as to who was the better guitarist, Clapton or America's own, if transplanted Jimi Hendrix.  In any event,  the live recordings were what brought me to them, especially the track "Spoonful", a bloated, elongated, loud and gloriously  bombastic reading of the Howlin'Wolf/Willie Dixon classic . 

Composed of two chords and lots of groin-twisting obnoxiousness, the Cream rendition was a plodding, wandering, snarling crawl of an extended improvisation, with Baker on drums and Bruce on bass seeming to wander about and otherwise stray in their function as a rhythm section. Baker liked poly rhythms and jazzy offbeats  , playing ahead and behind where the pivotal bass note landed and Bruce, not so much a time keeper or a tempo technician as was a  musical nervous system all his own, dueled with Clapton's guitar phrases furiously. Where other rock bassists, whatever their skill level, maintained their task of keeping things moving and marrying the melody to the beat, Bruce was a jazz man at heart; even with blues tunes and pop songs that rarely had more than a few chords and blessed with complicated melodies, the two of them reverted to their jazz backgrounds and deconstructed the material until it was a snarling, snarky bit of ker thump and cement-splitting thump. Clapton had no jazz back ground and was, technically, the least versatile of the three of them, but he had soul, style, a true grasp of the blues and was one of the very first white guys who became notable for developing his own distinct voice in a the twelve and sixteen bar tradition. 

But Clapton, the alleged "Slow Hand" of repute, was game to try his hand at extended jamming and brought his limited but stylish expertise to a strange mix that gave us some exciting results; tone, texture, short, biting riffs, much of what Clapton as the ostensible lead instrumentalist was repetitious. But there was energy, and in the best moments they actually got a groove going, a call and response of simple yet compelling ideas that rivaled the best intensities I've heard from John Coltrane. Just as often, the band's preference to extend their songs with improvisations quickly exhausted itself and you  could sense the  boredom behind the notes Clapton bent and the off beats Baker tossed out , all while Bruce seemed to be playing bass as though he were jacked to the tits on strong coffee and black beauties. 

Then it seemed like a date with someone you didn't like and it was a long ride home and you were thinking all the while that too soon the car would stop and somehow you'd have to decide to go through with your bad faith and hate yourself in the morning, or just end the night abruptly, coldly, either driving off without a kiss or a promise to call, or a slammed door on the passenger side, a fast walk to the front door and through and locking it behind you, turning off the porch light as the final message of "go away".