I love all types of music, new and old, but I have to admit to being a bit of a cynic when it comes to reunion tours. In recent years, a growing list of legendary bands have put aside old differences and criss-crossed the globe under the pretense of giving fans one last chance to light their lighters. Such tours appeal to the lost child in all of us, but with bands charging fans hundreds of dollars for good seats, the bandmembers themselves often seem less interested in re-living old times, and more interested taking home a huge payday. And the revenues don't end at the concert hall -- renewed interest in the band often sparks CD sales, and then (of course) the obligatory concert tour DVD. It's really an extraordinary enterprise built around a bunch of fat old guys, with gray hair down to their knees and man-tits slapping against a guitar fret.
Compare such reunited bands to a band like '70s spandex-fantastics ABBA, who have continually re-buffed offers to re-form, even reportedly turning down one billion dollars (that's right, one billion) for a year-long tour. Isn't it odd (and oh-so-telling) that when it comes to pure credibility, and a refusal to milk fans for empty cash, that the four oft-ridiculed Swedes outclass an ever-increasing parade of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers?
Having said all that, you might have guessed that I was somewhat disappointed a few years back when I heard that the legendary Cream was lumbering back down the live jukebox trail, announcing a series of first-ever (and supposedly last-ever) reunion concerts in 2005. The band was only active for three years in the first place -- from 1965 to 1968 -- cutting three classic albums in the process. So why re-form? Considering that they were barely together long enough to tour much at all, a reunion tour seems like little more than a crass attempt to eke yet a few more dollars from their aging fanbase.
Alas, watching 'Live at the Royal Albert Hall' more or less reaffirmed my feelings. It's a rather bland affair, with the three famous members -- Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce -- basically just standing around and playing. Even the light show is pure nostalgia, with a large psychedelic video backdrop behind the group. (What, no black-lite posters and lava lamps?) I guess I still don't get it -- why re-form if you aren't going to bring anything new musically to the table?
On the bright side, these guys certainly can still play. In fact, they are probably far more polished and finessed than when they were originally together as a band. Clapton, of course, has long since emerged as a guitar god. Baker's legacy is also all but cemented in rock history, and Bruce can still slap a mean bass. And the guys also don't chintz on the set list, either. The show runs a solid 130 minutes, so it is hard to imagine any diehard fan going away disappointed by the songs chosen.
Did Cream really need to re-form? Not really. But at least musically they've still got it -- and at under $30, this HD DVD release is a bargain compared to what fans paid to see them in person.
The track list is: 01. I'm So Glad / 02. Spoonful / 03. Outside Woman Blues / 04. Pressed Rat and Warthog / 05. Sleepy Time Time / 06. N.S.U. / 07. Badge / 08. Politician / 09. Sweet Wine / 10. Rollin' and Tumblin' / 11. Stormy Monday / 12. Deserted Cities of the Heart / 13. Born Under a Bad Sign / 14. We're Going Wrong / 15. Crossroads / 16. Sitting on Top of the World / 17. White Room / 18. Toad / 19. Sunshine of Your Love
Released through the Rhino label (a subdivision of Warner), 'Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall' looks terrific. Shot using HD cameras at 1.78:1 widescreen, and presented here in 1080i/VC-1 video, the source is whistle-clean, with great blacks and excellent contrast. Colors are clean and vibrant, with even the deepest hues stable and free of chroma noise. Detail is picture-window perfect, and typical of live events shot on HD video. Detail is strong enough that I could make out the coils on the guitar wires during a close up, or catch the graying whiskers on the band members' pseudo-beards. Only a bit of slight noise in the shadows distracted, but it is minor. Otherwise, this one is a real winner.
Rhino offers up two tracks on this one -- a standard DTS 5.1 surround mix and an uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo mix. This is a rather unusual case where I preferred the stereo track to the 5.1. There just isn't enough going on in the rears to really make much difference, and the expanded dynamics and purer sonics of the PCM track win out.
I'm not a fan of gimmicky 5.1 music remixes, so it doesn't bother me that about the only thing in the surrounds on the DTS is crowd noise. I also find it weird when a singer's vocals are isolated in the center channel, which to me usually gives live music a weird, surreal quality, as if all the aural elements are not organic with each other. That said, the PCM sounds richer to me -- bass goes deeper and tighter, while mid-range is more spacious. Stereo separation alone is just fine in terms of the instrumentation, and again I liked the fact that the vocals were not floating about in the center, all on their own. The DTS is perfectly fine on its own merits, but can't achieve the same level of fidelity and clarity as the uncompressed PCM.
The extras included on this HD DVD are pretty typical for a music release and mirror those included on the previous standard-def edition of this disc.
First up are three Alternate Takes, for the songs "Sleepy Time Time," "We're Gone Wrong" and "Sunshine of Your Love." To be honest, nothing here is really different from the main set versions, at least musically, so I'm not really sure why they were included.
There are also three very brief, separate interviews with each band member: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Baker is clearly the most reserved about the reunion, and apparently took the most prodding. Other than that, little of much interest is imparted, and despite Clapton's insistence that the band has never been about "pandering" to its audience, these guys seemed to be more mercenary than ever.
'Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall' is a perfectly fine document of the legendary band's once-in-a-lifetime reunion tour. Personally, I found it another all-to-familiar bit of mummified nostalgia (right down to the cheesy psychedelic background), but I'm sure diehard Cream fans will eat this up. Meanwhile, this HD DVD is of top-notch quality, with great video and audio. If you simply want a snapshot of the show, pick this one up without hesitation.