Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-5-6 2005

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For one reason or another, Cream reunited in the spring of 2005, setting aside nearly 40 years of acrimony for a series of gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in May, which was later followed by a few shows at Madison Square Garden about a month after souvenirs of the London shows -- a double-CD set and a double-DVD set -- were released. By that time, tickets for the New York concerts were long gone, which was understandable, since Cream had not only remained a legendary band, but it seemed extremely unlikely that they would ever play live again, so the chance to see the original power trio in the flesh was tempting. Fans who anxiously awaited this reunion might find the record of the event, bearing the unwieldy title Royal Albert Hall: London 2-3-5-6 2005, a bit anticlimactic, or a mixed blessing at the very least. The chemistry between guitarist/vocalist Eric Clapton, bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker is still palpable on this compilation of highlights from the four Royal Albert Hall shows -- it's just quite a bit more subdued than it was the last time they played together, which, discounting a one-off reunion at their 1993 induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, was 36 years ago. That's a long time ago and the guys are no longer restless young psychedelic bluesmen -- at time of the concerts, Eric Clapton had just turned 60, Jack Bruce was a couple weeks shy of his 62nd birthday, Ginger Baker was 65. Of course, they're hardly the only group of '60s veterans who have remained active -- the Rolling Stones released a new album of material a month before this live album, and they're all in their sixties, but there's a big difference between the two bands, and that's that the Stones kept playing together throughout the past four decades. While all three members of Cream remained relatively active (Baker recently had retired to his ranch, but kept playing professionally into the '90s, even teaming up with Bruce on occasion), they never played a unit, so they're a little rusty in terms of inter-bandmember relations, which winds up making them sound their age. Not only do they never rock as hard as the Stones do on A Bigger Bang, but Cream never approximate the furious rush of energy that the band did at its prime and there's never a sense of the push-and-pull dynamics between the three members that made the best of their lengthy jams sound alive and at times unpredictable. Part of this is down to age, not just in the sense that they're a little bit older and a little bit slower, but because those four decades have changed their style a little. Baker is a tighter drummer, lacking the reckless, volatile energy that wound up either as thrilling or turgid. Bruce can't hit the high notes anymore and doesn't roam as much on the bass, but he still manages to dominate with his fluid instrumental and vocal phrasing; plus, his bass just sounds enormous, as if it could conquer the earth. Clapton plays like a millionaire with impeccable taste, yet in this stripped-down setting, he's forced to play more than he has in years; at times, he's too refined and relies on familiar licks -- plus, his reliance on a Strat over the Gibsons that fueled his Cream sound does give this a noticeable lack of heft, even if he gets a good approximation of his classic warm tone -- but there are times, like when he holds a single note longer than Neil Young on "Cinammon Girl," that he takes greater risks than he has in years. So, this winds up being not necessarily exciting, but it's far from embarrassing, either, and there's a certain sense of admiration in hearing the trio pull it together for a respectable performance. In no way does this replace the group's original studio albums -- or the excellent BBC Sessions or even the patchwork live albums they released just after their breakup -- but this does act as a nice coda to their brief career.

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