At these final shows, Cream showed why they were one of rock’s greatest acts.
One of rock’s first supergroups, Cream might also be its best. By the time the trio formed, guitarist Eric Clapton had already assumed his god-status (with accompanying graffiti) for his work in the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers. Drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce hadn’t achieved that level of fame yet (having been mired in the rock/R&B act the Graham Bond Organisation), but they’d proven their proficiency to those in the know. Given each member’s skill level and temperament, Cream could have been a one-off burst of egos typical of all-star assemblages. Instead, the band would stick around for four proper albums not entirely made of egos before the members would go on to separate, acclaimed careers.
As strong as Cream’s records were, the group sounded most comfortable in a live setting. Whether building on their early blues sounds or pushing into psychedelic rock, the trio knew how to stretch out. With a commitment to demonstrating technical skill, Cream fell into extended jams and improvised explorations as easily as they did studio cuts. New box set Goodbye Tour – Live 1968 catches them in that setting over the course of four complete sets as they wrapped up their work together, including their finale, the November 26, 1968 show at the Royal Albert Hall. Nearly half the tracks have been released before, but having them assembled as complete concerts makes for an invigorating context. Taken bit-by-bit, the collection reveals a trio of musicians near their peak, but also a group clearly done with being a group.
The four setlists are, not surprisingly, remarkably similar, with the first show offering a couple surprises in “Deserted Cities of the Heart” and “Passing the Time” (though the latter would serve a similar function in the show as “Toad” does in the other concerts). Only serious fans will need this much similar material, but those who dive in will find pleasure sorting out the differences between performances. Cream ramps up “Crossroads” across the last three shows; the old Robert Johnson song works fine as a steady groove, but it gets caught between Johnson’s pain and the raging vehicle that Cream could make it at times.
Not surprisingly, the individual musicians each sound incredible. Clapton never did better work than when he was with Cream, and he drives songs like “I’m So Glad” with his recognizable style. Bruce gets fewer chances to shine on bass (“Traintime” highlights his harmonica work), though Baker takes full advantage of his extended solo freedom on “Toad.” Few listeners doubt the skill of these three, but that skill provides the focus of the live sets. Cream were probably musicians ahead of being songwriters, but they began to forgo tact and interplay by the time of these shows (personality conflicts were driving the dissolution—this was a “goodbye” tour, after all).
Clapton’s studio peak came with “White Room.” His lead guitar work mirrors the story of the song and, enjoyable as it is as instrumental work, its genius lies in his ability to expand on the singer’s experience. The guitar adds understanding, emotion and direction to the piece. The performances—each of which open a concert—don’t lack for skill or power, but they’re only skill and power. Cream was so good that it doesn’t matter, and the song with its tense beginning makes for a perfect opener each night. The band’s approach to it is also indicative of their inevitable and always latent transition to a set of three musicians happy to show off for the night rather than to find new ground as a unit.
That fact hardly matters, though. The final concerts show a band making a definitive exit statement. It’s still a treat to hear a reworking of something like “Spoonful,” but the night sounds like ending punctuation. The group finishes by doing what they do, blazing through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out,” just four more minutes to turn it loose, before a quick statement: “That really has to be it, but I’m very glad you’re here tonight. Good night.” Bruce was already on to his jazz-fusion and Clapton and Baker (done with Bruce) didn’t take long to find their next supergroup in Blind Faith. Cream had a good run, but it was clearly time to be done. At these final shows, the group showed why they were one of rock’s greatest acts but they hint at why it was time for the next step (out) for each of them.