Few stars burned brighter and faster than Cream, the legendary psychedelic blues outfit helmed by three of the most legendary British musicians of the 1960s: Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton.
Gathering together just as the blues explosion in England was reaching its apotheosis, Cream were unfortunately doomed from the start. Baker and Bruce had both spent time in the Graham Bond Organisation, during which their dual combative natures and tended to rub each other the wrong way, even occasionally turned violent. Their chemistry as musicians, however, was undeniable, but so was their shared antagonism.
Although Clapton knew of the two’s combustible reputations, he also knew that he couldn’t find any two better musicians to create what would retroactively be labeled as rock music’s first supergroup. The band somehow put together four albums in just over two years time, but the uneasy alliance of Bruce and Baker once again soured as the band entered 1968. Combined with a gruelling tour schedule and lack of cohesive unity when performing, Cream decided to part ways by the end of the year.
The band’s farewell shows at the Royal Albert Hall in November of 1968 were monumental events. The band played all of their signature material, from blues covers like ‘Spoonful’ and ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ to originals like ‘White Room’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ to Baker’s indelible drum solo ‘Toad’, but the resulting footage from the gigs had low quality video and sound, distracting camera work, careless editing, narration over the top of many songs, and inexplicable gaps in the setlist, ruining what was otherwise a stellar performance.
There have been attempts to piece together and salvage the farewell shows over the years, with bootlegs and unofficial recordings being scoured for better quality, but unfortunately, it seems like the true majesty of the band’s final London gigs are lost to time. However, that’s not to say we can’t enjoy what remains for what its worth.
In fact, the performance of ‘I’m So Glad’ remains a jewel, despite the production fiasco that attempted to capture it. Playing at punishing volumes, the band members feed off each other’s energy to push the song towards its constant peaks, with Bruce’s screeching vocals having the most muscle and power than they ever had, Baker’s rock solid timekeeping also mixing in fills that show off a keen ear for complementing composition rather than tossed off improvisation, and Clapton playing angrier and more ferociously than he ever would afterwards.
The band also play with what Clapton had harped that the group were missing: dynamics. As the climactic jam reaches its final moments, the band suddenly drop away and return to the more sedate intro before giving the song’s chorus a final triumphant return. Volume was never in question for the trio, but the ability to rise and fall brings a sense of drama and finality to their last performance on British soil.
Cream had a few reunions over the next 40 years, including a return to the Royal Albert Hall in 2005 that was thankfully much more professionally preserved. Time had lessened the band’s muscular drive, but not their unique alchemy. But for the best example of why Cream remains so influential after all these years, check out their last performance of ‘I’m So Glad’.