Nearly four decades passed between Cream's 1968 swansong at London's premier venue and the band's reunion shows this year on the same stage. The similarities and differences between the two events are striking, as seen and heard on DVD: Farewell Concert: Special Extended Edition (Image; Show ••••, Picture/Sound •½, No Extras) and the two-disc Royal Albert Hall, London: May 2-3-5-6 2005 (Rhino; Show ••••, Picture/Sound ••••, Extras •••).
For starters, every song played in 1968 (except for the instrumental "Steppin' Out") also turns up in 2005. And the effortless musical conversation among the three players - guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker - remains very much in evidence today. But whereas Cream was a fire-breathing powerhouse in 1968, they now display a lighter, more nuanced, and Zen-like approach. (Of course, they were in their 20s then and are in their 60s now.) Moreover, having switched guitars from Gibson Les Pauls to Fender Stratocasters, Clapton in 2005 projects a tone that's less thick and aggressive than it was at psychedelia's height.
The "Extended Edition" of 1968's Farewell Concert actually reinstates three songs (including "Crossroads") that were cut from the original TV broadcast (and eventual video release). Note "TV": this is less a concert film than a documentary, so the DVD is both frustrating and rewarding. Voiceovers by a starchy British narrator interrupt tracks - as when, in the middle of a blistering "Spoonful," he intones: "Rock music is intended to attack the eye as well as the ear." The original mono sound is bootleg-quality, and the inclusion of a useless surround mix makes a mockery of the technology. That said, the performance is historic. And interviews with Clapton and Baker, who offer veritable clinics on their instruments, are priceless.
The reunion DVD, cherrypicking numbers from the four nights, captures the trio's deft interplay in seamless cinematography and pristine sound. Mick Guzauski's 5.1-channel mix leans Clapton's guitar to the right front and Bruce's bass to the left. Baker's drums are across the front - including the center channel, where he and Bruce give extra support. Crowd noise and hall ambience come from the rear, efficiently placing you in the audience, which is all you can ask of a live surround program.
The jamming on blues stalwarts like "I'm So Glad" and "Spoonful" simmers over a sturdy flame. For set-list handicappers, the final night accounts for 12 of the 19 takes. Extras consist of three alternate takes and feel-good interviews.
Meanwhile, Clapton's latest studio album, Back Home (Duck/Reprise; Music ••½, DualDisc Mix •••½, Extras •••½), is an undemanding disc that the guitarist has largely fashioned as a vocal showcase. In an effusive liner note, Clapton pays homage to five singers, which serves as a cue to his 1970s-soul intentions. He has mastered the territory, but his personality can get subsumed in the manicured slickness. And except for a solo burst in "One Day," you won't find any guitar histrionics. The DualDisc offers a solid surround mix by Guzauski. Extras include interview material and in-studio performances of five songs. Four "EC" guitar picks, too!.
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