Exactly half of these six albums are live. Half, too, were released after Cream had announced their split in 1968. This suggests the special qualities of a band whose combustible members couldn’t even manage three years together, and who became a byword for lengthy live improvisation previously the province of jazz, to which they added ballroom-shuddering, Marshall-stacked volume.
1966’s Fresh Cream (7⁄10) is a glimpse of what was lost along the way. Sweet Wine’s restrained blues wouldn’t sound out of place coming from guitarist Eric Clapton’s previous employers, the Yardbirds. Bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker’s more exotic influences, though, punctuate Four Until Late balanced by the playful chamber-pop of Dreaming.
1967’s Disraeli Gears (8⁄10) nods to the just-finished Summer Of Love with its phased guitars, but even more so with Bruce/lyricist Pete Brown’s lysergic vignettes such as Dance The Night Away, delivered in Bruce’s ancient choirboy quaver. As with the following year’s White Room, specific trips to Swinging London’s inner sanctums seem alluded to, made more darkly mysterious by the trio’s monochrome sound. Front-loaded with Strange Brew and Sunshine Of Your Love, the hits kept coming, too.
Wheels Of Fire (8⁄10) is where the heaviness really starts. But massively successful, relentless US tours were ripping the band apart. The semi-detached Clapton loses himself in stinging solos on Sitting On Top Of The World. The live half of this double album finds him inexhaustibly resourceful during a 16-minute Spoonful, Bruce’s bass weaving melodically just beneath him.
1969’s Goodbye Cream (6⁄10) began a long farewell, its weak studio side given dignity by the George Harrison-Clapton co-write Badge. It was the authentically muddy-sounding live A-side, though, which encouraged further tour vault raids for Live Cream (5⁄10) and Live Cream Volume II (7⁄10). Listening to Clapton’s bottleneck solo on II closer Steppin’ Out, you can hear an excited Baker waiting to pounce and, when he does, the pair help power each other. You can understand why after Cream Clapton begged to join the relative peace of The Band, and why Baker stalked him into Blind Faith.
Still everyone concerned’s best work, this box set makes a fitting tribute to Jack Bruce./o:p