- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

A few lucky thousands will see the reunited Cream at New York’s Madison Square Garden next week — its three dates there constitute the beginning and end of a North American tour. The rest of us must content ourselves with “Cream: Royal Albert Hall,” a magnificent DVD document of the band’s four-night residency last spring at the storied London venue where it bid its legendary farewell.

The supergroup whose very name suggested cocksureness already had a reputation to live up to when it formed in 1966. Quitting only two years later probably did as much to secure Cream’s eminence as the trio’s virtuosic musicianship: There was no long decline, no drift into irrelevancy, no embarrassing transition into the video age.

And, fortunately for the members of Cream, no premature deaths — which is the main reason Eric Clapton felt compelled to reform the band: They’re all still here.

The double-disc “Royal Albert Hall” (an audio set of the same name was released simultaneously on Oct. 4) knits together performances from each of the four May nights that Cream played Albert Hall, for a two-hour presentation that begins with one of the band’s jauntiest songs, “I’m So Glad,” and ends with its first hit single, “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The video footage does everything it’s supposed to. It captures the momentousness of a long-in-coming reunion. As the cameras swoop into and away from the audience (which on one night included the actors Jude Law and Sean Penn), you can practically feel the electricity under your feet. (There are also humorous interruptions that show various venue employees who couldn’t care less.)

It reveals how each of the principals looks (Mr. Clapton, fit and fatherly; singer-bassist Jack Bruce, ragged; drummer Ginger Baker, ravaged) and how they sound (excellent).

Wisely, Cream avoided wizened psych-rockers such as “I Feel Free” and “Strange Brew” (“Tales of Brave Ulysses,” with its descending doomsday riff, would have been nice, though) and, instead, stuck to its hard bluesy English roots with renditions of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues,” plus an aching take on T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” into which Mr. Clapton (on lead vocals) digs with soulful precision.

Slowhand slows down Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (his blistering solo on Cream’s cover version on the “Wheels of Fire” album assures him a high place in the pantheon) to a more comfortable, midtempo shuffle — but still not as slow as Johnson’s doleful original.

Mr. Bruce’s definitive vocal on “Born Under a Bad Sign” is still frighteningly exact, as is the menacing, back-and-forth riff he carpentered for “Politician.”

Mr. Baker, one of the greatest and most influential drummers of the rock era, turns in the inevitable epic drum solo “Toad,” which impresses heavily, even as it reminds you of the ghastly trend it started. He also chews on “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” a spoken-word oddity from “Wheels of Fire” that is all the more endearing for his nervousness in delivering it.

If I have one quibble (warning: it’s a technical one), it’s how — there is no other way to put this — Stratty Mr. Clapton’s guitar sounds. By Stratty I mean Slowhand’s exclusive use of Fender Stratocasters, which he didn’t take up in earnest until his time in Derek and the Dominoes. Cream loses some of its distinctive muscle here because of the relentless twang of Mr. Clapton’s favored ax.

In the interview section of the DVD bonus features, Mr. Bruce mentions how assiduously the band steered clear of nostalgia exercises. In rehearsals, the band experimented with some of the vintage gear it used back in the day — and then thought better of it.

That’s admirable. But why shouldn’t here-and-now Cream reproduce the indispensable wah-pedal effect on “White Room?”

A bemused fan, who will shortly return to his basement to bang out Cream guitar riffs, wants to know.

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