CREAM – ” Goodbye Tour Live 1968 “

Posted: December 19, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Rolling Stone issue #10, dated May 11, 1968 featured a picture of Eric Clapton on the cover.  The heavily processed image (taken by Linda Eastman) shows Clapton in close-up, his 1967 Hendrix-inspired perm grown out and his hair longer than it would ever be again.  Around his neck, nestling incongruously (or perhaps ironically) alongside some hippie beads, is a football scarf. His sideburns are fashionably bushy and he is also sporting what can only be described as an impressive Tom Selleck style moustache.  No doubt about it – Eric looked great in ‘68. Every inch the guitar hero, in fact. But inside issue #10 of Rolling Stone things were about to turn very ugly.

Five weeks earlier Cream had played a concert at Brandeis University in Boston and Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau (the man who in 1975 would become Bruce Springsteen’s producer/manager) was there to review it.  What he wrote would not only spell the end of Cream it would also send Eric into a tailspin of self-doubt which would last for years to come.  Among other things Landau’s review read: “Eric Clapton is a master of the blues clichés of all of the post-World War II blues guitarists…”. There was plenty more in the same vein but that line alone was enough to make Clapton resolve to quit what was probably the biggest touring rock group in the world at that point.  It’s been said that Eric had already heard The Band’s debut album Music From Big Pink and wanted to do something similar following the Landau mauling.  But Big Pink wasn’t released until July, two months after the Rolling Stone piece, so the chain of events seemingly developed over time.  Just to complicate matters, although the seeds of Cream’s demise were irrevocably sown in May of 1968, it was later revealed that the band had secretly agreed to call it a day before Landau’s review went to press, mainly due to the ongoing tension between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

Whatever the truth behind the break-up Cream still had one more lucrative tour to complete.  This was their so-called “Goodbye Tour” consisting of 22 shows at 19 US venues from 4th October to 4th November 1968, followed by two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 25th and 26th November.

Cream’s final album (excluding posthumous live releases) “Goodbye” appeared in February 1969, three months after the Albert Hall shows.  I have reason to remember it possibly more than any other Cream record from their short, 30 month career.  A close friend and talented fine artist from Sheffield, Paul Winter, had recently moved to London to work for the Alan Aldridge Ink Studios, so when Goodbye appeared with that distinctive Aldridge airbrush lettering on the front cover it was a source of great local pride.  I never did find out if Paul had very much (if anything) to do with the Cream sleeve, but I like to tell myself he did.  Pleasingly, this Goodbye Tour Live 1968 box set retains a variation of the original Alan Aldridge design as well as that delightful showbiz send-up photo by Roger Philips showing the band decked out in silver suits, with top hats and canes.  True to form, Ginger seemingly didn’t like the idea of dressing up and threatened the photographer during the shoot. No change there, then.

This lavishly presented box contains four complete shows from the last eight weeks of that final tour: Oakland, California (October 4), the Los Angeles Forum (October 19), San Diego Sports Arena (October 20) and the Royal Albert Hall, London (November 26).  Of the 36 tracks, 29 have never been released on CD before (19 are previously unreleased, plus the Royal Albert Hall show which was only available on VHS and later, DVD).

 

This lavishly presented box contains four complete shows from the last eight weeks of that final tour: Oakland, California (October 4), the Los Angeles Forum (October 19), San Diego Sports Arena (October 20) and the Royal Albert Hall, London (November 26).  Of the 36 tracks, 29 have never been released on CD before (19 are previously unreleased, plus the Royal Albert Hall show which was only available on VHS and later, DVD).

The packaging is excellent.  It comes housed in a 10-inch hard cover box with 70 page book incorporating a wealth of colour and black and white photos showing onstage action, concert tickets, posters, music magazine cuttings and record sleeves from around the world. The book also features some entertaining liner notes by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke.  On the downside Fricke confuses Lincolnshire with Lancashire when referencing a May 1967 UK gig in Spalding and the picture on page 17 of the book has been flipped, turning Eric into a left-handed guitarist. Not the end of the world, admittedly, but with such an expensive item, someone should have taken a second look.

Considering the band was apparently falling apart and the members eager to go their separate ways, you’d never know it from these performances.  Cream are on fire throughout with their playing as powerful and accomplished as ever. The three California shows are top-quality soundboard recordings which have been circulating as bootlegs for years so it’s good to see them finally get an official release.  The London show is presumably taken from the soundtrack of Tony Palmer’s film Cream: Farewell Concert and the sound has not improved in the transfer.  While still quite listenable (especially without the dizzying camera zooms, close-ups and annoyingly fast edits of Palmer’s film), the fourth disc is of somewhat lower fidelity.

“White Room” was the opening song almost every night and there are four versions here.  The first thing you notice is what a great singer Jack was. The finest bass player of his generation was also blessed with a tremendous voice, the equal of anyone in rock at that time.  And, save a few fluffed lyrics and wayward harmonies here and there, the quality and power of his vocals never waivers throughout. The set list hardly varies across all four shows with the lion’s share of songs coming from the recent Wheels of Fire double album (released in August 1968) plus a couple from Fresh Cream and just “Sunshine of Your Love” from Disraeli Gears.  But Cream rarely played a song the same way twice, anyway, instead using the basic structure as a launch pad for their extended improvisations.  This is especially true of the longer pieces such as “I’m So Glad” and “Spoonful”. The four versions of “Spoonful” total over an hour in length yet all are wildly different, with only the vocal section sticking to any kind of plan.  Two tracks pre-date the formation of the band. Although “Traintime” later appeared on a couple of Cream albums Jack’s harmonica solo spot originated during his time with the Graham Bond Organisation. Likewise “Steppin’ Out” started life as Eric’s instrumental party piece with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience are often compared and although Eric and Jimi were friends, contemporaries and first among equals it’s impossible to imagine Hendrix tackling a number like “Politician”.  This lumbering monster of a song contains not a skerrick of swing or soul, but it swaggers along with feel to spare, laying waste to all before it. One of four songs on Wheels of Fire co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, “Politician” took on new momentum when played live and seemed to grow in stature as the tour progressed.

In the late 60s and early 70s drum solos were de rigueur for any rock band with virtuosic tendencies.  They were not everyone’s cup of tea, however, and even the most hardened rock concert-goer will likely blanche at the thought of a 20-minute solo.  I’m with those people much of the time but always made an exception in Ginger’s case. He was a drummer of unique power and invention and I could quite happily sit though virtually anything he cared to serve up.

Ginger’s solo spot was typically the thunderous “Toad” and it appears on three of the four shows (35 minutes of it, in total).  The Oakland concert on disc one is different, however. Here the drum solo happens during “Passing The Time”. Ginger co-wrote this song (along with two other tracks on Wheels of Fire) with jazz pianist Mike Taylor who sadly died only a year later in 1969 aged 30.  Oakland was the first date of the tour and at the end of “Passing The Time” Ginger announces “We have to apologise for being a little rusty. We’ve been on holiday”.
Like most people of a certain age I first heard Cream’s “Crossroads” in 1968 on Wheels of Fire.  52 years later I’m still of the opinion it could be the greatest live rock ensemble recording ever committed to vinyl.  This powerhouse 12 bar blues thunders along at a fair old lick with not one but two life-affirming guitar solos. It’s moderately fast without being frantic.  It’s punishingly loud but still swings like crazy with every instrument cutting through the mix equally. It may be a showcase for Clapton’s guitar but it’s very much a team effort with the bass and drums doing just as much of the heavy lifting.  With almost telepathic understanding Eric, Jack and Ginger lock onto the beat, mindful of every micro-shift in tempo. At one point the song seems in danger of tripping over itself as it rushes headlong into the last verse a little too fast. But just in time they pull it back and then, a little over 4 minutes after it began, the “Crossroads” juggernaut shudders to a halt, rivets straining on the boiler and steam coming off the brakes.  “No one will ever beat it” opined Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt, speaking about “Crossroads” to Rolling Stone in 2005. “They literally solo for four verses in a row… The fact that they all come back together at the end, at once, is one of the most remarkable moments on record”.

Such was the impact of this track it went on to have a life of its own.  In 1988 Eric released Crossroads, an early multi-CD compilation and one of the biggest selling box sets of the digital era.  A decade later he launched the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of all-star benefit concerts which is still running today.  In 2005 Gibson guitars issued a limited edition replica of the Gibson ES335 Eric used on the 1968 recording. The original guitar was sold at auction for just under one million dollars, but you can buy one of 250 exact Crossroads replicas for a bargain US$10,000. So, while Clapton has sometimes coyly attempted to play down the importance of the original Wheels of Fire recording there’s no denying “Crossroads” holds great significance for him.

First the good news: Goodbye Live Tour 1968 features four unreleased live versions of “Crossroads”.  Now the (slightly) bad news: not one of them is quite as good as the Wheels Of Fire version recorded seven months earlier at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.  The Oakland recording has a slightly hesitant feel with the famous riff changed to something resembling the opening of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”, albeit on steroids.  Two weeks later and the Los Angeles version is more like it. The riff is now in place but it’s played a little too fast, as is the London recording. Only in San Diego did they come close to matching the Winterland original but even here the two guitar solos don’t have quite the same impact.

Cream may have invented heavy rock and a lot more besides but they were a blues band at heart and the three versions of “Sitting On Top Of The World” drive this point home comprehensively.  The LA recording on disc two previously appeared on the 1969 album Goodbye and is perhaps the pick of the bunch (although San Diego runs it a close second).  Never was the term “power trio” more appropriate as the band bulldozes its way through this slow blues.  Ginger nails it all down at the back, rock solid and immovable. Jack is all over the fretboard like a lead player, his rasping bass bubbling through the mix, louder than any recording engineer would dare risk today.  His vocals are astounding especially considering he’s singing while playing some extremely complex bass lines. Meanwhile Eric fires off a series of exhilarating fills topped off with a solo of murderous intensity.  It’s a masterclass in muscular electric blues. Subtle it ain’t, but my goodness it sounds great.

“Sunshine of Your Love” appears on all four discs, the extended solos taking it far beyond the rigid confines of Cream’s biggest hit single.  Much looser than the studio version, the most famous riff in all of rock takes on new life when played live. There’s a strange moment during the LA show when the bass drops out for several seconds but we assume this was nothing more than a technical glitch.  The strongest performance of “Sunshine…” by far appears on the San Diego concert. It’s also the best recorded version with all three instruments way up in the mix and Jack and Eric’s vocals strong and clear.

“Steppin’ Out” is the final number of the final show and, as the Albert Hall crowd yells for more, MC John Peel, always a master of studied indifference, signs off with the characteristically deadpan line “That really has to be it, but I’m really glad you’re here tonight.  Goodnight”. And with that, Cream leaves the stage forever (or until their 2005 reunion, 37 years later).

Cream existed simultaneously as two very different groups.  There was the studio incarnation which recorded beautifully crafted pop rock gems such as “I Feel Free”, “Strange Brew” and “Badge”, but the live band was another matter entirely.  Onstage they were a high-volume stadium monster who could justifiably claim to have drawn up the blueprint for heavy rock, jam band rock and much else besides. Part jazz, part blues and several parts rock, Cream’s improvised flights of fancy elevated music to places it had never been before.

Jack Bruce passed away in 2014 and with the recent death of Ginger Baker it’s sad to reflect that now only Eric remains, adding even more poignancy to this release, at least from the listener’s perspective.  Following Cream’s demise the baton would be picked up by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and others who took the same basic format and turned it into 70s commercial gold. For all their success, though, none of the pretenders would achieve the same legendary status or, dare I say it, quite the same level of musical excellence.

Let’s leave the last word to Buddy Miles who, coincidentally, was about to exit his own group Electric Flag in late 1968. He comes onstage at the Los Angeles Forum to introduce who he calls, in the hip speak of the time, “Three really outasite groovy cats”. Buddy continues (presumably referencing the impending split), “What can you say? It’s happened, and we can’t do anything about it, but just remember they’ll still be there, and they’ll always be there.  That’s Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton. Ladies and gentlemen, the Cream”.

DISC ONE – OCTOBER 4, 1968 – Oakland Coliseum, Oakland (all tracks previously unreleased, except *)
1. White Room (6.19)* (previously released on Live Cream Volume II and Those Were The Days)
2. Politician (5.22)* (previously released on Live Cream Volume II and Those Were The Days)
3. Crossroads (3.57)
4. Sunshine Of Your Love (5.35)
5. Spoonful (16.47)
6. Deserted Cities Of The Heart (5.26)* (previously released on Live Cream Volume II)
7. Passing The Time (10.40)

8. I’m So Glad (7.07)

DISC TWO – OCTOBER 19, 1968 – Los Angeles Forum, Los Angeles (all tracks previously unreleased except *)
1. Introduction by Buddy Miles (1:39)
2. White Room (6.53)
3. Politician (6.41)* (previously released on Goodbye)
4. I’m So Glad (9.37)* (previously released on Goodbye and Those Were The Days)
5. Sitting On Top Of The World 4.53* (previously released on Goodbye and Those Were The Days)
6. Crossroads (4.25)
7. Sunshine Of Your Love (6.27)
8. Traintime (8.11)
9. Toad (12.55)

10. Spoonful (17.27)* (previously released on Eric Clapton’s Life In 12 Bars)

DISC THREE – OCTOBER 20, 1968 – San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego (all tracks previously unreleased)
1. White Room (6.42)
2. Politician (6.26)
3. I’m So Glad (7.53)
4. Sitting On Top Of The World (5.45)
5. Sunshine Of Your Love (5.13)
6. Crossroads (4.13)
7. Traintime (9.39)
8. Toad (14.03)
9. Spoonful (9.12)

The Oakland Coliseum, Los Angeles Forum and San Diego Sports Arena concerts were mastered from the original 1968 analogue mix reels by Kevin Reeves at Universal Mastering, Nashville, TN.

DISC FOUR – CREAM FAREWELL CONCERT NOVEMBER 26, 1968 – Royal Albert Hall, London (all tracks released on CD for the first-time)
1. White Room (8.02)
2. Politician (6.37)
3. I’m So Glad (6.53)
4. Sitting On Top Of The World (5.06)
5. Crossroads (5.03)
6. Toad (11.22)
7. Spoonful (15.47)
8. Sunshine Of Your Love (8.37)
9. Steppin’Out (5.02)

The Royal Albert Hall concert was mastered from the original 1968 analogue transfer reels by Jason NeSmith at Chase Park Transduction, Athens, GA.

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