Wednesday, May 22, 2013
It’s interesting, to me at least, that an album that has gone on to provide much of the core concert repertoire of a band still going strong forty-plus years later should have peaked at #188 on the Billboard charts first time around. It is, I think, another of those records that didn’t sell a lot, at first, but everyone who bought it either went on to do something or placed a big tick beside a name to watch out for.
Maybe not quite everyone, but Black Hearted Woman had wormed its way into the set list of a Cairns-based heavy rock quartet called Barabbas by December 1970, and I suspect there was a desire to emulate the Allmans’ sound that had the outfit looking for someone who could replicate Gregg Allman’s Hammond B-3 licks and add a bit of light and shade to a very classy guitar, bass and drums trio.
And, quite seriously, it’s hard not to be impressed with an album that may or may not be the best debut album ever delivered by an American blues band, but definitely laid the groundwork for a whole genre of powerful, hard-edged blues-based Southern rock. The Allmans went on, thanks largely to the band’s legendary live performances and the live At Fillmore East album, to become huge, but it was success based on a core repertoire and much of that core repertoire comes from right here.
Working the genre in a concert environment you could possibly find a better way to start (Statesboro Blues?) than the opening one-two punch of Don't Want You No More > It's Not My Cross to Bear but they’d be relatively few and rather far between. The loose jazzy instrumental they acquired from the Spencer Davis Group’s 1968 post-Stevie Winwood album With Their New Face On, just in case you’re interested) works pretty well as a snappy limbering up exercise with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ guitars and Gregg Allman's organ surge along over Berry Oakley's bass and the drums duo of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe propel things into a shuddering climax and Duane and Dickey play the harmonised guitar line that runs down into It's Not My Cross to Bear.
That instrumental intro hints that, hey, we’re not looking at a straight blues band here, but Not My Cross points out rather succinctly that here’s an outfit that can damn well play the blues straight if straight is what you’re looking for with clear, ringing guitar licks, a mighty fine vocal and a wrenching Duane Allman solo.
Then there’s Black Hearted Woman, faster with stinging interplay between Duane and Dickey Betts and the vocal and guitar bit towards the end that harkens right back to the moans and hollers on the plantations, work camps and prison farms (leastways that’s how it sounds to me). Gregg comes across vocally as a grizzled old blues man rather than a skinny long hair in his early twenties and consolidates the impression on Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More, where Duane's distinctive slide work with the coricidin bottle shoots into the spotlight for the first time.
If you were going to identify a weak link in an otherwise impressive collection you might go for the rather formulaic Every Hungry Woman, though it still chugs along merrily enough with sufficient opportunities for guitar pyrotechnics to hold down a regular place in the band’s set lists some forty-three years after the album appeared. If (and it’s a dubious proposition, but I have heard and seen it expressed) EHW is the album’s low point, weak link or whatever, that just underlines just how fine everything else is.
Or maybe you come to that conclusion because it precedes the album’s two set piece showcases.
First there’s Dreams close to seven and a half minutes of organ-drenched atmospheric waltz-time dynamics that combines world weary brooding (I’m hung up/On dreams I’ve never seen), an understated vocal and easy-rolling elements of blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock with a lyrical solo from Duane that climbs higher and higher until the bottleneck comes out and really nails things. For mine, the album’s definite high point.
Given a little more time, however, that tag could well have been afforded to the surging, rolling and tumbling Whipping Post, though 5:19 probably isn’t long enough for things to really build the way they were soon to do in the live setting, where the track regularly clocked in around the fifteen minute mark.
Still, from the start of that completely distinctive Berry Oakley bass line, the tension builds over the driving drum combo as the guitars wail and the whole thing comes to a shattering halt, making it a cathartic concert closer, and the ideal way to wrap up a very solid debut.
With the potential to be spun out to a much lengthier extrapolation in the live setting, Whipping Post, like the rest of the album is a sign of things to come, and while greatness mightn’t have been achieved here (they hadn’t hooked up with Tom Dowd yet) and hadn’t quite arrived with Idlewild South either you could, I think, sense it just over the horizon.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Given the likelihood that the natural move when looking at an Allen Toussaint set exploring his influences would be to place the man in a Crescent City studio with an outfit drawn from New Orleans’ finest instrumentalists it makes sense, at least from where I’m sitting, for producer Joe Henry to head out of town and cut the album with a group of highly rated New York session players and guest artists.
The Bright Mississippi isn’t Toussaint’s first excursion into the world of jazz, but given the limited distribution of 2005’s Going Places, released on a small label run by his son, it might as well be. It also acts as the follow-up to Toussaint's high-profile 2006 album with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse (also produced by Joe Henry). That time they used Costello’s Imposters alongside an array of New Orleans instrumentalists, but here there’s a horn section that approximates modern jazz royalty (trumpeter Nicholas Payton, whose father played bass on Lee Dorsey’s Working In A Coal Mine and clarinetist Don Byron), a stellar rhythm section (David Pilch on upright bass and Jay Bellerose, drums) with Marc Ribot, in all-acoustic mode on guitar. With Toussaint on piano and guest appearances from pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman that’s the instrumental lineup sorted.
As far as the material is concerned we’re looking at covers of classic pieces by Jelly Roll Morton (Winin' Boy Blues), Sidney Bechet (Egyptian Fantasy), Louis Armstrong (King Oliver’s West End Blues), Duke Ellington (Day Dream and Solitude), Django Reinhardt (Blue Drag), Thelonious Monk (The Bright Mississippi) alongside the traditional St. James Infirmary and Just A Closer Walk With Thee and Leonard Feather’s Long, Long Journey.
Sidney Bechet’s Egyptian Fantasy comes across as a brassy jazz funeral march, Byron's clarinet and Payton’s trumpet ragging around each other before a Toussaint piano solo over a barely audible tambourine in the background. Dear Old Southland riffs off Summertime throughout, opening with Payton playing a Dixie lament over Toussaint’s piano before another unaccompanied piano solo with Payton coming back soft and eloquent to round off an impressive six plus minutes.
The rolling piano in St. James Infirmary swings over Piltch's upright bass, Ribot's acoustic guitar and Bellerose's percussive punctuation, Ribot gets a solo and there’s an immaculately executed call and response to and fro around the main theme as Toussaint’s piano prodding Ribot's guitar on the way out.
Payton's back in the foreground for Singin’ the Blues with the rhythm section right on his heels and Toussaint comping along behind in a version that could have come straight out of Preservation Hall, and Jelly Roll Morton’s Winin’ Boy Blues is reworked as a piano duet with Brad Mehldau joining Toussaint behind the ivories.
Mention King Oliver’s West End Blues to anyone who knows their traditional jazz and the immediate response will probably mention Louis Armstrong and, predictably, Payton’s trumpet brings New Orleans’ most famous musical ambassador to mind from the opening five-note theme. Toussaint’s piano underpins the whole exercise and Ribot’s guitar is crisp and concise, as it is on Blue Drag, which, of course, it should on a Django Reinhardt number.
Byron’s clarinet takes the lead on the traditional Just a Closer Walk with Thee, with just a hint of playfulness as the stride piano plays off the gospel patterns as the clarinet loops back and forth across the top.
Thelonious Monk’s Bright Mississippi gets a down home treatment, with a touch of funk in the second-line drum groove and a buoyant strut in the horn arrangement. There’s none of that in Joshua Redman’s tenor sax on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Day Dream, which gets the three-in-the-morning smoke-filled night club yearning treatment as Toussaint and Redman play off each other.
The album’s only vocal arrives in Leonard Feather’s Long, Long Journey, a weary blues with muted trumpet over a brushed snare drum stroll with slide guitar, subtle and understated and eases gently into Duke Ellington’s Solitude, a late night duet involving Ribot’s guitar and Toussaint’s piano picking their way around the theme in five and a half minutes of stop-start interplay. It makes for an elegant finale to an exceptional outing.
Cut live in the studio over four days (and it definitely sounds that way) The Bright Mississippi delivers a neat and innovative exploration of modern and traditional jazz elements that casts a glance back to the music’s roots and still sounds contemporary, delivers soul with elegance, and matches a good time feel with supper club sophistication. It’s a class effort that underlines the riches of the New Orleans tradition by taking the material, filtering it through one of the city’s musical giants and rolling it out through an instrumental outfit familiar with the feel but not bound by the musical geography.
It’s an exercise one might definitely be tempted to repeat (and my music collection could definitely handle further explorations of the same themes in a similar manner) though one suspects lightning might not manage to repeat the strike location.
And if it doesn’t, this will do quite nicely, thank you...
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Never mind the release dates, check the session chronology and you’ve got a rather remarkable couple of quantum leaps from Fresh Cream (various dates, July to October 1966) to Disraeli Gears (three and a half days in May 1967) to Wheels of Fire (basic sessions at IBC Studios in London in July and August 1967, overdubs at Atlantic Studios in New York City during September and October and some finishing touches at the same location in January and February 1968), basically at times the band’s hectic touring schedule allowed.
That’s sort of twelve months from something approximating Well if we’re going to make a go of this we’re going to need some product to sell to an exercise in tweaking the boundaries of what was possible on a rock record, and not just on the studio side of things. Producer Felix Pappalardi arranged for a mobile recording setup from Los Angeles to be shipped to San Francisco to record shows at the Fillmore auditorium and the Winterland Ballroom. Pappalardi and recording engineer Bill Halverson recorded six shows split between the two venues, and what didn’t end up on the Live at the Fillmore half of Wheels of Fire ended up on two volumes of Live Cream.
As far as Disc one: In the Studio is concerned, it starts with a monumental roar in the shape of White Room's multi-tracked guitar, single strings feeding back while the tympani pound and the bass thunders, and the recording details of this one track are mirrored throughout the rest of the album. Initial sessions at IBC Studios in London in July and August 1967, overdubs in New York in September and October and the wah wah effects inserted at Atlantic Studios in early 1968.
After that pounding intro there’s a great set of Brown lyrics, allegedly relating to his new apartment and a psychedelic experience Where the shadows run from themselves that was powerful enough to have him swear off the stuff. Clapton’s working the wah wah towards the borders of excess, Baker’s drum sound is nothing short of majestic and Bruce delivers one of his best vocal performances.
There are any number of versions of Sitting on Top of the World (credited to Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon; arranged by Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf) but this one probably set the benchmark as far as the post-Wolf generation was concerned. Great rock-blues guitar work employing classic phrasing pushed to the point of reverbed distortion underpins a fine vocal performance, and Baker’s drums set things up just right. He’s there banging away again on Passing the Time, co-written with British jazz composer and pianist Mike Taylor (Baker provides the lyrics).
After Disraeli Gears’ Blue Condition, Baker must have realised he needed the right collaborator (big tick as far as Hughesy’s concerned) and appears to have put some effort into the words, which mightn’t tell a great story, but set a scene that works well with the studio production. Wisely, the vocal duties go to Bruce, and the result is a rather quirky, slightly hypnotic gem, full of deftly executed time changes, heavy on the glockenspiel with the quiet, melancholy of the verses shifting into all-out hard rock on the chorus.
With Clapton missing and Baker limited to the high hat cymbal, Bruce gets almost total credit on As You Said, contributing acoustic guitar, cellos, lead vocals in what amounts to a solo performance. Acoustic guitar and droning cello play back and forth and the result is a quirky piece that delivers a mixture of menace, mystery and melancholy (the sun is out of reach)...
Baker continues to demonstrate a recognition that song on Disraeli Gears could (and should) have been better by reciting the vocal line on Pressed Rat and Warthog. Your mileage may well vary with this fractured bit of whimsical nonsense concerning purveyors of atonal apples and amplified heat / And Pressed Rat’s collection of dogs’ legs and feet, but from the first time I heard it (as the B-side of Clapton and Sharp's decidedly oddball Anyone for Tennis), I’ve seen it as a pretty harmless bit of fun with its own peculiar charm, with Pappalardi’s trumpet figures lilting over Baker’s drum rolls and Clapton's subdued chord (before he cuts loose on the instrumental play-out).
A prowling, menacing riff leads into the Bruce/Brown Politician that could have been slow heavy metal twelve bar by numbers if it wasn’t for Clapton’s interwoven guitar overdubs, Baker’s precise percussive punctuation and Brown’s cynical lyric line given a reasonably straight delivery in Bruce’s vocal. Contrast, if you will, with the Pete Brown & His Battered Ornaments version, complete with Brown’s introductory monologue in all its twelve-minute glory here.
The Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor combo scores again on Those Were the Days, a percussion showpiece with Baker on drums, marimba, tubular bells and Felix Pappalardi banging away on Swiss hand bells. Again, there seems to have been some thought and effort going into the words, Bruce gets to sing and Clapton unleashes some stinging frenetic guitar over the percussive melee.
That’s followed by Born Under a Bad Sign, a fairly orthodox rendition of a contemporary blues standard by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, originally recorded by Albert King with any number of subsequent versions (Wikipedia lists, among others, Big Mama Thornton, Blue Cheer, Booker T. and the M.G.s, Buddy Miles, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Koko Taylor with Buddy Guy, Paul Butterfield, Paul Rodgers, Peter Green, Rita Coolidge and Robben Ford). Bruce walks around the basic riff on bass, Baker syncopates around that and Clapton reworks King’s solo in his own style, with an edgy sound that’s unmistakably Claptonesque.
There’d been a fair bit of the cinematic across Disraeli Gears (Tales of Brave Ulysses, World of Pain) and earlier in Wheels of Fire (White Room, Passing the Time) but the Bruce/Brown Deserted Cities of the Heart, three and a half minutes that, for me at least, is the album’s most successful track moves those elements into another dimension.
Or would have if they’d opted to reprise the furious Clapton solo that burns and aches with frustration in the middle as a play out. Now my heart’s drowned in cold dark streams, indeed.
With a couple of nights recorded, the selection of tracks to include on Disc two: Live at the Fillmore seems to have been based on what producer Pappalardi thought needed to go on there (obvious enough, but there’s this issue of sharing the spotlight around three ways, which means we were always going to be getting a lengthy Toad). Bruce needs his turn in the spotlight, which would seem to explain Train Time, and, of course, he gets to nail Spoonful in the vocal department. Clapton’s going to get the guitar spotlight throughout, and gets the vocal on Crossroads so the result is an odd display of diplomatic democracy that, interestingly, works in reverse chronological order as far as the actual performances go.
Crossroads (recorded 10 March 1968 in the first show at Winterland) might kick proceedings off, but it was recorded last, following Spoonful in the actual performance and, at just 4:13 is Clapton's showpiece, and may or may not have been edited down from a longer version. Tom Dowd, who you reckon might be in a position to know, claimed in an interview with Guitar Player magazine (July 1985) Crossroads, onstage, was never under seven to ten minutes long. So, the solos between the vocals were edited, which would explain why this one’s substantially more focussed than the sixteen minute Spoonful that follows (but in real life preceded) it. On the other hand there’s no obvious sign of an edit, and there are other versions recorded in a similar time frame that run around the same length of time.
Spoonful, on the other hand, weighing in at 16:43 is heavy on the improvisation, and while Clapton’s firing on all cylinders Bruce is heading over the top in the vocal department and your mileage will vary depending on your ability to handle extended statements of virtuosity. If you can handle the solos, you’ll probably be rapt, but it’s a track that often attracts the Shuffle forward button, as does Train Time’s harmonica and Bruce vocal overload. Baker does a good job on the choo choo shuffle, but it’s one that’s destined to remain outside Hughesy’s Top 10,000, let along the Top 1500 Most Played, as is Toad. If the relatively brief version on Fresh Cream doesn’t qualify, sixteen and a bit minutes here are no chance whatsoever, though each time I allow the thing to run Baker’s rhythmic invention and sheer stamina impress.
With the live material in the can, the band decided to split, though the announcement to the wider world didn’t happen until July, and there was the obligatory farewell tour of the US and a couple of concerts in London. Wheels of Fire didn’t hit the stores until August, but when it did
With the benefit of hindsight, decision to split was, when you looked at the tensions between Bruce and Baker and Clapton’s feeling that the trio didn’t listen to each other enough (at one point he stopped playing mid-concert and neither Baker nor Bruce noticed) was probably inevitable and the final shows in London came just under twenty-eight months after their debut.
In that context it’s interesting to note the progression in recording technology from four tracks (Fresh Cream, July > October 1966) to eight (Disraeli Gears, May 1967) to what was probably closer to twenty-four once the basic tracks for Wheels of Fire had been cut at IBC in London and they’d transferred operations to Atlantic in New York. There’s a lot more room when you’re on a multiple of eight tracks, and it comes through strongly in the intricate overdubs and the added instrumentation, the cello, trumpet, viola, organ, and a swarms of bells and percussive effects that add a great deal of light and shade.
Casting the gaze backwards, and shedding the live component it would be a tricky issue if you set out to decide which out of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire amount to a greater achievement. Disraeli Gears, for those of us who were around at the time, was the album that made you stop, listen and note that there was definitely the album where Cream hit their straps, where Wheels of Fire has them in full fight, firing on all cylinders, delivering a sprawling masterpiece of a kind that would very shortly become an endangered species as Cream disbanded, Hendrix left us and the pioneers were succeeded by a wave of lesser performers with less imagination and a greater propensity to work to formulas.
Cream’s heyday coincided with a time when the old definitions of commerciality were temporarily being disregarded. The commercial success of Wheels of Fire (it went platinum in the US within a year of release), and the previously unimagined river of revenue that stemmed from touring the United States, playing large venues (something unimaginable in a British setting) went on to pave the way for a wave of successors and aspirants, but I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for the pioneers who blazed the way...
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
While I haven’t lined up for a copy of the book that accompanies this latest episode of doggy derring-doo on the strength of the music herein I’ll be grabbing the musical component of subsequent releases as soon as I’m aware they’re out there. The second episode follows five months after the first, and there is, by all accounts, significant progress (including titles) for a third and fourth title in the developing series.
Like Shotgun, what we’re looking at here is part of an ongoing concept blending photography in and around the Marigny and Bywater neighbourhoods of New Orleans and a story line involving two black Labradors (Guzzard and Mr. Poo) with sequential sets of lyrics from RKR-CB (lyricist/producer Robin Hunn) set to music and performed by Andrews and a select cast of New Orleans musos, including Alex McMurray (guitar) and his Royal Fingerbowl confederates Carlo Nuccio (guitar, drums) and Matt Perrine (bass, tuba) and slide guitar from John Mooney. Andrews contributes vocals, keyboards and guitar and there’s a bit of extra work around the drum kit from Jermal Watson, plus saxophone action from Derek Huston.
John Mooney’s slide guitar drives Invisible Love into Exile on Main Street Stones territory, and things stay in the same postcode for Don't Stop. She Drives Me To Drink could probably use a dash more bravado and a a bit of Graham Parker sneer, but that wouldn’t have worked on DeFleured Me where the joys of pleasure are measured against the consequences. Where You Gonna Go has some rather classy piano work as Andrews ponders the question and Robin Hunn steps up to the vocal booth for a sleazy Bone, five and a bit minutes of leaving very little to the imagination.
There’s a tasty slide solo and a fair chunk of Sea Cruise in Beat Up The Memories, a brass section providing the punctuation on Suck My Pipes and a distinctly canine vibe (as you’d expect from the title) to Mutt Not Smut. Pretty In My Dreams takes a look at the gap between self image and external reality, Dynamite Doll rocks along in fine Jerry Lee Lewis fashion and Third Line My Heart has the brass section back to the fore as Andrews works New Orleans parade territory. It’s an upbeat and uplifting way to wrap up proceedings.
Invisible Love mightn’t be the destination you’re seeking if you’re after something flashy and spectacular, but if you’re after a fairly classy meld of New Orleans R&B and vintage rock’n’roll you could do much, much worse. When’s the next instalment?
Monday, May 6, 2013
It’s all about expectations, really. Not that long time fans will have any delusions about a sudden surge of popularity shooting Ron Sexsmith into the stratosphere of popular success. From the low key French horn producer Mitchell Froom deploys at the start of Nowhere to Go it’s obvious we’re heading straight back into familiar territory, and, really, without some profound change in the Sexsmith vocal cords there isn’t really anywhere else he’s able to go. That built in melancholy works like a charm throughout Forever Endeavour’s beautifully crafted, softly rueful songs dripping with bittersweet reflection.
And if he’s leaning a bit more towards musings on mortality you can’t really blame him. There was a major health scare in the middle of 2011, when a lump was discovered in his throat. The lump turned out to be benign, but it’s the sort of circumstance that tends to concentrate the mind and dominate the thought processes.
Assuming you’ve actually heard the man’s work, from those French horn notes at the beginning to the final notes of the melancholy, melodic The Morning Light, there isn’t anything startlingly new here, which is fine with me. Another collection of low key, well-structured songs with echoes of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney and traces of other troubadours (a dash of Ray Davies, maybe a jot of Jackson Browne and a dollop of Nick Drake) has a definite place in Hughesy’s playlists.
Mitchell Froom occupied the producer’s chair for Sexsmith’s first three albums, and 2006‘s Time Being and he knows what is needed to take a new bundle of Sexsmith material and wrap it up to optimum effect. There’s an impressive cast of session players (mposters rhythm section Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, with the Calder Quartet there for the strings and Froom deploys them in an unobtrusive autumnal muted orchestration that wraps the meditations on aging, mortality and the need to carry on despite the slings and arrows of past misfortune in entirely sympathetic surroundings.
Nowhere to Go, with that gorgeous French horn at the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the album with references to the gravity of the moment where there’s Nowhere to go but down, and acoustic guitar and simple percussion lead into a wistful discussion about knowing where Nowhere Is that‘s almost jaunty as it gets into the chorus. If Only Avenue with some Duane Eddy guitar takes a rueful glance backwards (With the luxury of hindsight / The past becomes so clear / As I look out on the twilight / My days have become years). There’s a bit of the same in Snake Road‘s reflections on past infidelity, dark days when I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight, couldn’t keep my trousers on though the narrator doesn’t sound overly regretful.
The orchestration’s back, lush and lavish on Blind Eye, Lost In Thought is likely to slip past if you were, but is rather lovely if you’re paying attention, and there’s a major statement of the Sexsmith philosophy of life on Sneak Out The Back Door's portrayal of a relationship falling apart. He’s never been good at saying good-bye so there’s no surprise about his intentions. Even when my life is over / ... Give my regards to the people in charge / As I sneak out the back door with an absolute minimum of fuss.
Things are slightly more upbeat on Back Of My Hand, with chiming guitars and a Sixties Merseybeat feel. There’s a wistful melancholy retrospectivity to Deepens With Time and while he claims to be having a real good time on Me Myself and Wine the ragtime horns suggest that might not quite be the case. You can, however, count your blessings as he does on She Does My Heart Good, and there’s a zingy instrumental passage mid-song that does just that.
The album proper winds up with The Morning Light, a melancholy, melodic (no surprises there) flourish that brings things to an appropriate finish, though there are the usual bonus tracks tacked onto the end.
From the title Life After a Broken Heart might be expected to veer towards the doom and gloom but comes across as unquaveringly hopeful, but Autumn Light is pretty much as per expectation. Least of My Worries is uncharacteristically jaunty, while Real Pandora delivers a warning about desire and the possibility of lustful excess.
Assessing Forever Endeavour I’m in much the same boat as I found myself in with Richard Thompson’s Electric. Another excellent recording from an a quality songwriter who manages to consistently deliver quality, deftly poetic product.
I’ll eventually get around to giving the Jeff Lang albums in the collection a serious going back over, and since iTunes decided to do its little trick with 2009’s Chimeradour here’s one that gets the treatment sooner rather than later. By this point, with half a dozen solo (studio) albums, collaborations with, among others Bob Brozman and Chris Whitley and another half dozen live recordings in a career that runs back to 1994 Lang’s an established artist and had moved from an itinerant existence living in his van between gigs to married life with a child and a shed at the back of the yard he can retreat to for writing purposes.
A glance at the collaborations in the Discography suggests a sense of adventure, and recent collaborations with Malian kora player Mamadou Diabaté are fairly obvious throughout Chimeradour, and that combination of chimera and troubadour is a rather accurate portrayal of Lang’s style and inclinations.
A glance at the Dictionary app on my Mac reveals three definitions for chimera. From Greek mythology we have a fire-breathing female monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail, a sense that might move those of us with an inclination to the fanciful to wax poetic about the guitar pyrotechnics. Second, there’s a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve, which could well be the average listener’s reaction to those pyrotechnics and in the biological sense we have an organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues, formed by processes such as fusion ..., grafting, or mutation, and if that’s not an accurate description of Lang’s eclectic technique I don’t know what is.
Again, I’d point the reader towards the West African and sub-Saharan elements in Two Worlds and Home To You, wafting and caressing before a much more frenetic I Want To Believe with Lang over a manic fingerpicked double time guitar riff. I Don't Like Him Being In Here comes right out of Richard Thompson territory, with a guitar solo to match and feels like The End Of The Rainbow (covered later in the running list) brought on a couple of years and told from the little horror’s point of view with the kid, dealing with what presents as a dysfunctional family, failing to comprehend what’s happening around him or the reasons why it’s happening.
There’s a touch of the Moroccan Casbah about Edge Of The Light, a solid dose of Crazy Horse style Neil Young meets Jimi Hendrix in Slow Rooms + Fast-Blurred Faces and a healthy serve of desert blues in South‘s rolling riff.
Social issues come to the fore in Another One Of Those Days’ portrayal of an abused wife that hints at murder or some form of malfeasance while Richard Thompson’s The End Of The Rainbow, one of the bleakest songs known to Western civilization gets a suitably chilling delivery that follows on nicely from the menacing undertones of the previous track.
After that you need at least a glimmer of light in the darkness, and while Half A Tank Of Hope isn’t exactly upbeat, it fits the bill and Things Are Coming Back My Way is in much the same hemisphere. Not quite upbeat, but headed in that direction. Possibly.
Finally, as far as the regular album goes there’s The Janitor, a warped perspective on the Melbourne Cup from the point of view of the bloke who’s left with the task of cleaning up after the mayhem is over. In Lang’s words, if you were placed in that situation, you'd loathe everyone.
The regulation bonus track arrives in the form of an acoustic take on South, which makes an interesting contrast to the regular reading but doesn’t add too much to the picture.
Recorded with his regular rhythm section of Grant Cummerford (bass) and Danny McKenna (drums) and veteran producer Mark Opitz, (Cold Chisel, INXS, AC/DC, The Angels and Divinyls) twiddling the knobs, Chimeradour delivers another batch of material that’s (at various stages rather than simultaneously) ethereal, elegant, devastating and gut-wrenching. It’s not easy listening, but definitely offers rewards for those inclined to give it a fair go in the attentiveness department.
Lang is probably Australia's premier guitarist, a riveting live performer, a writer who’s as good as any going round at the moment with an eye for quirk and detail and while the vocals mightn’t be his strongest suit they have character and inhabit his characters with an often chilling menace. A class act...
Here’s a classic example of how quickly things progressed in the hothouse musical world of the late sixties. Barely six months after the sessions that produced Fresh Cream, coming off the end of nine shows as part of Murray the K's Music in the 5th Dimension concert series in May 1967 the band had three and a half days before their visas expired to record a second album at Atlantic Studios in New York. Their American label, Atco, was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, so the sessions were engineered by Atlantic’s Tom Dowd with label ownerAhmet Ertegun present through the sessions.
It was around six months since the sessions that produced the first album and were, with the benefit of hindsight, aimed at building the core of a live repertoire, but things were moving pretty quickly in early 1967, and it must have seemed fairly obvious that the three players weren’t possessed of the sort of skill set that would deliver material of the quality that was needed on their own. That must have been obvious at the time, at least as far as the lyrics were concerned. If you glance back to Fresh Cream the playing was fine, the instrumental interplay close to spot on, but the words were in desperate need of attention.
There’s probably no better example of that situation than the contrast between the tracks that open and close the first side of the vinyl version. Clapton had taken a Buddy Guy riff and reworked it slightly after the style of Albert King, labelled it Lawdy Mama (a title that obviously needed changing) and needed some words. Cream had been playing it live as an instrumental. It could have remained in the set list in that guise, but a live tape had Disraeli Gears’ producer Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail Collins playing with the melody line and adding some suitably psychedelic lyrics and the result was Strange Brew.
Contrast that with the leaden plodding and genuinely duff words of Ginger Baker’s Blue Condition at the end of the side, and you can probably see exactly where I’m coming from. About the best thing that can be said about Blue Condition was that (from Ginger Baker’s perspective) he didn’t get to share the writer’s royalties with anyone.
As far as the writing goes, leave out the jokey Mother’s Lament and you’re left with ten tracks, an uncompleted piece buffed up and polished by Pappalardi and Collins (Strange Brew) and one that was entirely their own (World of Pain), one Martin Sharp poem set to a tune from Clapton (Tales of Brave Ulysses), an old time blues (Outside Woman Blues), Baker’s contribution (Blue Condition) and Bruce’s We’re Going Wrong as well as four Bruce collaborations with poet Pete Brown that contribute a much more consistent quality rating. It definitely helps to have people who know their way around words on board.
As far as openers go, they don’t come too much better than Strange Brew, the first single off the album and a significant departure from Clapton’s previous blues stylings. Cutting the track in New York with an engineer who knew his way around multitrack recording (the late great Tom Dowd) added a sonic complexity they couldn’t have managed earlier. In places, the guitar work seems to have been triple-tracked (at least), with little riffs that wind their way around, in and out of each other with the whole thing held together at the seams by Baker's drumming.
Driven by one of the all-time great riffs, Sunshine of Your Love, according to Tom Dowd, wasn’t working until he suggested that Ginger Baker try something akin to the war drums in a Western movie as the Indians ominously appear on the sky line, and it’s Baker’s drums that drives and underpins that iconic ten-note riff, allegedly the result of Bruce seeing the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the first time.
Bruce and Clapton share the vocals, with the lyrics stemming from the end of an all-night Bruce/Brown writing session that hadn’t produced much of note (It’s getting near dawn / Where nights close their tired eyes). Throw in a Clapton solo that’s built around Billie Holliday’s Blue Moon and you’ve got the makings of a hugely successful single, and one of the classic tracks of the psychedelic era.
But we’re still looking at an outfit looking to cement a place in the marketplace, and while you could look at the Pappalardi/Collins World of Pain as a lightweight successor to what had preceded it, for mine it’s a fairly classy piece of understated pop, with Clapton’s multi-tracked wah-wah guitar underlining the argument that amid all the fuss about Cream as thundering bluesmeisters, or some such hyperbole, there was a fairly sophisticated experimental pop outfit lurking under the surface.
That’s equally obvious on the soaring 12-string driven Dance the Night Away, which along with the masterful We’re Going Wrong, is one of the best examples of Cream as quality purveyors of power pop. There’s nothing fancy about Pete Brown’s lyrics, just a clear expression of an intent to dance myself to nothing over an instrumental track that invokes both The Byrds and Middle Eastern Sufi mystics.
On the other hand it’s difficult to find any redeeming features in the leaden Blue Condition. You could, perhaps, liken Baker’s spot in the limelight as akin to Ringo’s vocal contributions to Beatle albums, but one would gently point out that for most of the time Mr Starr had Lennon and McCartney doing the writing. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if they’d had more than three and a half days to cut the album or anything else in the way of Baker-penned material Blue Condition would have been consigned to the outtakes basket.
Or maybe it suffers a bit more than it deserves (a possibility I’d be inclined to discount, but there you go) because it comes straight before the sublime Tales of Brave Ulysses, the product of a chance meeting between Clapton and Australian artist Martin Sharp before they ended up as co-residents in The Pheasantry in Chelsea. The way Clapton tells it he was at the Speakeasy with French model Charlotte Martin when they encountered Sharp, recently returned from Ibiza, where he’d written this poem about the Greek hero Ulysses and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
Hearing that Clapton was a musician, Sharp wrote his little poem down on a napkin, handed it over, and the rest, as the saying goes, was history.
Setting Sharp’s words to an uptempo melody he’d been working on based around The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City, Clapton slowed things down, overdubbed lashings of wah-wah guitar and came up with something that’s often rated as the band’s finest effort. While I’m inclined to hand that label to We’re Going Wrong I can see where the Ulysses crew are coming from.The contrast between the calm minimalism of Bruce’s vocal line as Baker pounds away underneath and that frenzied wah wah was mind-blowing back then and still sends chill down the spine forty-five years later. It wasn’t the only Clapton/Sharp composition, but the contrast with the rather charming Anyone for Tennis couldn’t be much more extreme.
They could possibly have left the title of the Bruce/Brown collaboration we’ve come to know, love and attempt to pronounce as SWLABR as the full length She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow, but the mystery in the initials lines up with the ring a rosy guitar licks Clapton delivers, Bruce’s surreal vocal showcases the substance-driven inspiration behind the lyrics and the whole package rocks along in suitably surreal style (what with the subject matter and all).
But as stated previously, Hughesy’s tick for the album’s standout track goes to Jack Bruce’s We're Going Wrong, which stems from the masterly underplaying Clapton demonstrates throughout, that old saw about what you leave out being as important as what actually goes in. It’s not quite an exercise in minimalism, but check the slow inexorable build under the Bruce vocal line from the starting plea to open your mind, little licks that stay under the surface until that verse gets repeated as Baker gives the rolling drums the mallet treatment. Melancholic, quite majestic with a vocal melody that’s not as simple as it sounds, contrast this with, say Dreaming from Fresh Cream as an indication of how things had progressed in less than a year, then skip over to the reunion version from Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005 and see where they ended up taking it nearly forty years later and you might note that certain je ne sais quoi that underlies a rather sublime piece of music.
At the time I seem to recall some statement from Clapton about ensuring the old blues men get their fair share of royalties, and Blind Joe Reynolds might have lived long enough to collect a pay cheque for Outside Woman Blues, which Clapton sings, delivering a reasonably traditionalist take on the song an a slightly rock-oriented arrangement.
On the surface you might think there’s nothing sinister about Take It Back, a fairly good time harmonica-driven romp that rocks along merrily, but there’s apparently a fairly significant anti-Vietnam message lurking under a song that was apparently inspired by media images of American students burning their draft cards.
Reading the Clapton autobiography, where he has the band locked away in the RKO Theatre from 10:30 in the morning till 8:30 at night while Wilson Pickett, the Young Rascals, Simon & Garfunkel, Mitch Ryder and The Who went through their paces five times a day in the Murray the K Show, I suspect that rousing singalongs around a backstage piano in between brief appearances on stage to play I Feel Free explains the decision to wind up proceedings with Mother's Lament. The old music hall song probably provided cover in between incidents Clapton describes as all manner of pranks like flooded dressing rooms, and flour and smoke bombs.
That was right before the Disraeli Gears sessions, and while the three part accapella harmony has nothing to do with what had gone before, their contemporaries had a habit of providing incongruous endings to albums, and this one, delivered with great gusto was another one.
While Disraeli Gears has its weak points here and there, Cream's second album has, by and large ironed out the issues that emerged on Fresh Cream (notably the writing, Blue Condition notwithstanding) and the result was a polished package that set one of the benchmarks for what followed. The Bruce/Brown writing combination demonstrated an ability to deliver quality material that took some of the weight off Clapton and Baker, Clapton's playing, driven by technology (multitrack recording), gadgets (the ubiquitous wah wah pedal) and sympathetic engineers (the mighty Tom Dowd) moves up several notches and the rhythm section drives proceedings most magnificently.
They might have hated each other’s guts, but what a combination!
An album of classic proportions that, in many ways, laid out the ground rules for the power trio, helped define psychedelic music in the late sixties and thereafter by a stellar trio at the height of their considerable powers.
And that title. A malapropism. A discussion between Clapton and Baker (there are various versions, but this seems to be the consensus version) that had something to do with a racing bicycle with derailleur gears allegedly produced a comment from roadie Mick Turner along the lines of it's got them Disraeli Gears.
When you go Googling for dates, details and other snippets of information that might come in useful you'll find the odd snippet that's too good not to purloin for your own purposes.
In this case it's: Fresh Cream. It all changed here - for better or worse. Your choice, which I borrowed from here (always give credit where credit's due).
Looking back from a twenty-first century perspective, of course, it mightn’t sound all that new or radically groundbreaking, but much of that comes from the fact that it was the first of the acknowledged mid- to late-sixties guitar hero albums. Of those notional peers, Are You Experienced? came out in the U.K. on 12 May 1967, Jeff Beck’s Truth in August 1968, Led Zeppelin I on 12 January 1969.
Released on manager Robert Stigwood’s independent Reaction label, Fresh Cream, along with the band’s first single (I Feel Free) hit the market place on 9 December 1966. on that basis, if you want to go all comparative, I’d suggest giving Fresh Cream a listen alongside other expressions of the blues boom scene they were emerging from - John Mayall’s Crusade or A Hard Road or, perhaps the original Fleetwood Mac line-up’s Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
A couple of general observations first.
For a start, given the fact that we’re talking a notional supergroup coming out of a rather small but quite fanatical scene, Cream’s debut album was surprisingly successful, peaking at #6 on the British album charts, which is rather impressive until you note that Mayall’s A Hard Road and Crusade both went as high as #8 and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, released in February 1968, reached #4 and stayed on the charts 37 weeks.
Those figures, on the other hand, would also suggest a niche market large enough to support a fairly vibrant subculture, with participants who were quite prepared to lay down the readies for the latest releases. On that basis, you’d also expect the releases to fit into a discernible style which, largely, they do, and Fresh Cream covers the kind of territory you might expect from three of the most respected players to have emerged from the blues/R&B boom. It also goes a bit further than that, but let’s pause for a minute to take a closer squiz at that Blues Boom.
There were, through the mid- to late sixties, any number of bands hawking their particular brand of blues and R&B across the British countryside, from the poppier end of the spectrum (The Animals, Yardbirds, Manfred Mann) through to the out and out hard core traditionalists (John Mayall) with outfits like the Graham Bond Organisation somewhere between the two.
There was, if you struck it lucky, the opportunity to rise to something approaching stardom (a la The Rolling Stones) but for most of the practitioners who were doing it for a living it was a pretty hard slog. That changed towards the end of the decade, as other outfits (most notably Led Zeppelin) followed Cream into the American market, but until that happened we’re talking a niche market that was viable but didn’t pay all that well.
Eric Clapton was, as far as such a beast existed, the only significant name on the circuit who wasn’t an actual bandleader (John Mayall, Graham Bond, Zoot Money, for example) and the whole Clapton is God graffiti bit was kicking off when drummer Ginger Baker approached him to sound him out regarding a new band. Baker, one suspects, was looking for a better share of the gig proceeds than the hired hand wages he’d been getting to date.
Clapton, after stints in The Yardbirds, which he’d left because For Your Love was far too poppy for a blues purist to associate with, and John Mayall, where he was just about on co-headline status with the nominal leader, was looking for something interesting and had noted the existence of a rather good bass player in the shape of Jack Bruce, who could also sing and also had his eye on the young Steve Winwood in the vocal and keyboards department.
Guitar, bass, drums and Hammond B3 seemed to be the default blues band lineup, aided and augmented by the odd saxophone if the finances stretched that far.
So Baker, looking for a better earner, approaches Clapton, who is coming off seeing Buddy Guy in a trio setting and learns, yes, Eric’s interested, but he’d like to see Jack Bruce on bass. That was a complication Baker wasn’t ready for. He’d worked with Bruce in the Graham Bond Organisation and the pair, regardless of how well they worked as a rhythm section, loathed and detested each other.
There was the odd rehearsal/jam here and there through 1966, basically, one gathers, when everyone was in the same London neighbourhood, but each of the trio had a gig elsewhere until Baker let the cat out of the bag in a newspaper interview. At that point Clapton got the bullet from Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (though he seems to have been ready for a change and looking for a way out) and Bruce was ejected from Manfred Mann, so the trio had little choice but to see whether they could actually make a go of it.
Which, in turn brings us to Fresh Cream and the two singles that preceded the band’s second album, Disraeli Gears. The first thing to note here is the importance of the Top 40 when it came to getting exposure in a market where there weren’t many outlets. We’re talking the pirate radio era here, with very limited avenues to get your music heard on the official broadcaster, so Wrapping Paper and I Feel Free were important elements in getting the name out there and spreading the word, even if they weren’t particularly representative of what the band was actually doing.
Released the same day as Fresh Cream, Wrapping Paper could possibly have been less like what you’d expect from an electric blues-based power trio, but it’s hard to think how. Lightweight jazzy piano rather than heavy electric guitar, Beatles rather than Blues, a Jack Bruce vocal with accompanying harmonies, the song started as a four way co-operative effort but the published version is credited to Bruce/Brown (that’s Pete Brown, as in Pete Brown & His Battered Ornaments) much to Ginger Baker’s continuing disgust.
The highly poppy I Feel Free, once the bom bom vocal introduction is out of the way, is a bit more like what you’d expect from a blues-based outfit, though it’s sitting in the realm of pop music innovation rather than the maintenance and continuation of tradition. It is, to me at least, catchy as hell, a classic piece of hook- and harmony-laden pop-rock psychedelia complete with concise Clapton solo. On that basis, even tacked on to the front of Fresh Cream as it was on the American version of the album, it works pretty well.
And it’s at this point, I guess, that we start to disavow ourselves of the notion of Cream as a heavy blues based outfit, though subsequent developments would tend to reinforce the misconception. There was, from my reading of the situation anyway, a conscious move to get away from the limitations and restrictions imposed by blues orthodoxy alongside a definite awareness of which side of the bread had the butter.
So the direction might have been towards pop, but there was still going to be something for the Clapton is God crowd as the trio worked the virtuoso end of the ability spectrum. I’ve contrasted this approach with the American approach to the blues, which was, insofar as anyone was paying attention at all, to emphasise authenticity rather than improvisation or invention.
The best example of that, to me at least, lies in my reaction to Fresh Cream lined up against The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (discussed here). The Butterfield is genuine, authentic harp-driven Chicago blues. Cream, while starting from the same roots, are obviously an outfit that are interested in exploring their individual capabilities. Interestingly, it seems that both bands experienced a seismic shift when they encountered the auditoriums of San Francisco, with Butterfield heading off into East/West’s exploration and improvisation and Cream developing the lengthy extrapolations of a couple of tracks from Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire that have become the basis of an ongoing reputation.
When they recorded Fresh Cream, of course, all that lay in the future, and while things in the second half of 1966 were heading towards the psychedelic explosion that exploded the following year, there were a number of things that hadn’t quite coagulated when Cream ventured into the studio to cut their first album.
The writing, in particular, hadn’t settled into regular collaborations, and that’s obvious when you look at the credits for the original tracks. Bruce gets the sole credit for N.S.U. which gets things off to a fine start thanks to some pounding from Baker, a driving solo from Clapton and some pretty basic words from Bruce that don’t deliver an over-elaborate portrait of the sexually active young muso’s lifestyle, N.S.U. being non-specific urethritis which might not sit in the same league of venereal diseases but is still something you’d best be avoiding if at all possible.
Not, in other words, the sort of thing you’d be discussing with the missus, and the other half of the writing credit for Sleepy Time Time goes to Mrs Bruce (Janet Godfrey). It’s a slow blues, again nothing too flash in the lyrics but plenty of sting in Clapton’s solo that went on to become one of the mainstays of the band’s live set.
If you were going to label anything on the set as filler, the most obvious candidate would be Bruce’s Dreaming, which definitely points towards a need for someone with a bit of a gift in the lyrics department. The vocals (Clapton and Bruce) are nicely layered, pleasant enough listening but nothing that’s going to excite.
Sweet Wine, on the other hand, credited to Ginger Baker and Janet Godfrey, mightn’t have the greatest set of lyrics you’ve ever run across but provides a perfect platform for extended improvisation and exploration (the Live at Winterland version elsewhere in the Those Were the Days box runs to fifteen minutes). Here, at 3:17 it’s a clear hint of what was to come, something that was equally obvious to the Townsville outfit named Vintage, who were inclined to spin it out to great lengths well before Live Cream appeared on the market. Great song in the studio version, considerably better than what’s come before and one of the highlights of the album.
Side One of the vinyl version winds up with Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, another candidate for the lengthy workout in a live setting. At six and a half minutes cut live in the studio with Bruce’s harp introduction overdubbed later you can definitely see where they were headed. Sweet Wine roared along nicely as a slice of pop rock, but here we’re talking blues. Bruce’s impassioned, spine-tingling vocal and the swirling three way instrumental interaction combine to deliver a definite pointer towards a future where Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and company would evolve towards heavy metal thunder.
Spoonful is the point where you can take that earlier comment: Fresh Cream. It all changed here - for better or worse and stand and point to an actual spot where the change occurred. There’d been hints earlier, but Spoonful, I reckon, marked the actual turning point, and it’s just as well it was right at the end of Side One of the vinyl because following it was always going to be tricky.
Still, a three minute instrumental take on Dr Ross’ Cat's Squirrel (credited as Traditional, arr. Sam Splurge) actually does that pretty well, with a rolling riff from Clapton, blasts of harp following the riff and Baker thrashing away underneath. A flurry of scatty alrights from Bruce lead straight into a Clapton solo that in turn brings the harp back in. The whole thing twists and rolls quite magnificently, and it’s one of the overlooked gems on the album.
That’s not a description you’d be inclined to apply to Clapton’s vocal take on Robert Johnson’s Four Until Late. Fortunately Bruce does his stuff quite tastily on the harp solo, but along with Dreaming this is the album’s weak point. The harp extravaganza continues on Muddy Waters’ Rollin' and Tumblin' and here is where the difference in approach between American authenticity and British adaption comes into focus. This one’s right in Yardbirds style rave-up territory and leads into another often overlooked gem in their take on Skip James’ I'm So Glad, the other overlooked gem on the album.
On the surface there’s not much there in the lyric department, practically nothing beyond I’m so glad / I’m so glad / I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad but there’s a great riff and a sort of Sufi twirler Holy Roller vibe (it was, apparently, a spiritual in its original incarnation). The combination of riff, Claptonic solo, funky bass line and pounding drums works a treat and it’s probably my personal favourite on the album.
Given my rating of N.S.U, Sweet Wine, Spoonful, Cat’s Squirrel and Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (all of which will find themselves into Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played eventually) that’s a pretty big wrap.
The years have made me slightly more tolerant of drum solos, but repeated exposure to the monster that spawned hundreds of imitations has me inclined to reach for the shuffle button when the distinctive riff that leads into Ginger Baker’s solo extravaganza on Toad rears its ugly head.
As stated, I’ve mellowed a bit and as a drum solo this is better than most, but still...
They've remastered it and whacked it back out on iTunes for $10.99 with I Feel Free tacked onto the front, so what we’re looking at (or would be if some skinflint hadn’t gone for the Those Were The Days box set for $31.99 is the American version of the album with Spoonful restored to its rightful slot at the end of Side One.
So, after the track by track, back to the significance, which isn’t, I suspect, obvious to someone who wasn’t on the ground and listening at the time.
1966 and the first half of 1967 were definitely interesting times as far as pop music was concerned, though we’re still in the realm of the 45 rpm single rather than the album. A glimpse at the listing here will reveal some very interesting items. Take a gander at the equivalent for 1967 and you’ll see the flood gates opening.
And it’s the sequencing that’s the key issue here, a sense of chronology and influence. Look at Fresh Cream alongside Disraeli Gears and the studio half of Wheels of Fire and we’re talking substantially different ball parks. Look at Fresh Cream alongside albums that came out in December 1966 (notably Buffalo Springfield and The Who’s A Quick One), January and February 1967 (The Doors and The Rolling Stones Between the Buttons, The Byrds Younger Than Yesterday, Mayall’s A Hard Road and the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow) and the contrast isn’t quite as marked.
Cream didn’t quite have things together at this point. There were things that needed to be sorted, particularly in the writing. It was obvious that they needed someone who could provide a decent lyric and the recording facilities in England, though they were quite capable of turning out quality product, didn’t have the sophistication of eight- or sixteen track recording. Get to New York, which they did for Disraeli Gears and you’re looking at the wherewithal to indulge in overdubbing and sonic possibilities that didn’t exist at home.
So while they weren’t the first electric blues band to come out of the British blues boom, they were the first to emphasise virtuosity over authenticity. They weren’t the first guitar bass drums power trio but they were on the ground ahead of most of the opposition, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix landed in London on 23 September 1966).
Actually, in that regard, with Bruce in the band they were the equivalent of the power trio plus singer outfits like The Who (contemporaries) and the likes of the Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart out the front) and Led Zeppelin and given the chronology they were operating in largely unmapped territory, and doing it before some of the features of the emerging musical landscape, including what I’ve seen described as lengthy improvisations during which mighty civilisations might rise and fall became de rigeur.
As one of the instances where blues, pop and rock elements started to coalesce and settle out as something totally new Fresh Cream delivers a certain degree of virtuosity for its own sake. Take the jazz roots (Bruce and Baker cut their teeth in that sphere) and Clapton’s wailing blues guitar and you’re probably always headed down that path, but at the same time while it might be virtuosity for its own sake you can’t deny the fact that you’re looking at three players who were widely regarded as the very best going around on the English blues circuit.
In some cases those who came after went on to greater heights (in musical terms, let’s leave minor details like chart positions and sales figures out of the equation) and had the chops to surpass one or more of Cream’s trio. There’s no denying the significance of the big names in the pantheon of late sixties guitar heroes, names who are so well known that they don’t need enumerating, but they weren’t all able to sit on top of a rhythm section as good as this one.
Whether you see Fresh Cream as the beginning of a golden age of virtuoso improvisation or the first signs of the emergence of the dinosaurs of heavy metal that needed to be swept away a decade later, there’s no doubt Fresh Cream was one of the key landmarks in the development of late sixties rock music and while what followed often sounded sharper, rocked harder and delivered innovations that may well have happened without it, those things wouldn’t, I suspect, have panned out in quite the same way if Ginger Baker hadn’t sidled up to Eric Clapton and inquired if he was interested in getting a new group together as a slightly better earner.
Fresh Cream was the result, and while it has its share of weaknesses it’s a remarkably complete and consistent effort, and a harbinger of what was lurking just over the horizon,