A new four-disc box set revisits the trio’s 1968 farewell tour in the band’s first release since the death of Ginger Baker
The sound of the crowd comes into focus, the opening notes begin to play and it’s like no time at all has passed since Cream swung through Southern California more than a half-century ago.
It’s the beauty of any box set, really. A record label invites the most devout of fans to find something new in a band they already love—previously unreleased material, perhaps, or liner notes that shed new light on beloved songs benefited by decades of hindsight. In this case, it’s both: Not only does the Goodbye Tour – Live 1968 set (now available from online retailers) feature liner notes detailing the history of these final shows by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, it also unleashes tracks from the road that had not previously been available—at least, not as purely audio content.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Goodbye Tour, but the release of the band’s live recordings from Nov. 26, 1968, is most significant. That London show—the second of Cream’s back-to-back nights at the Royal Albert Hall—was Cream’s last during their short span as a late 1960s supergroup, with the announcement of their impending dissolution coming about six months earlier. The band reunited later for one-off performances and brief tours, as so many bands do—but this was the bread and butter of Cream as a live group.
That London show contained so much power and energy that translates beautifully to these newly mastered recordings. Released as the band’s Farewell Concert video shortly after the breakup was finalized, the film showcases Cream as a live trio in a way audio recordings alone simply can’t. Seeing the concert hall packed with fans and watching the masterful performances of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker is an experience every Cream fan should have, especially those who are too young to have been around for the band’s fleeting heyday.
That said, there’s a lot to be gained from listening to the live songs without watching them happen. On these recordings, there are no cameras flipping between Clapton, Bruce, Baker and the audience; the listener isn’t guided in that way. Instead, the music opens up by existing on its own. The value of the solos is emphasized as the minutes tick by, a gentle reminder of the quality of musicianship at work. Including these recordings as clean audio content really does provide fans with something new decades after the trio disbanded.
The London tracks alone make this collection a home run, but fans from Southern California — myself included — might actually be more excited by the SoCal tour stops featured within this set. A month before the Royal Albert Hall shows, Cream stopped to perform first in Oakland and then in Los Angeles before bringing their final American tour leg to a close in San Diego. In fact, that last show at the San Diego Sports Arena generated recordings that have also never before been officially released—not even on video or DVD. Even though the songs weren’t technically new (“I’m So Glad” was on Cream’s debut Fresh Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love” was on 1967’s Disraeli Gears, “White Room” was on Wheels of Fire, and so on), they were different every time Cream went onstage. Referencing how his ability to enhance or extend a song off the cuff was shared by Bruce and Baker, Clapton said in a press release about the set, “Put the three of us together in front of an audience willing to dig it limitlessly, we could have gone on forever.”
Unsurprisingly, the matching of three people whom many described as musical geniuses created personality differences that were impossible for Cream to overcome, even when they tried to reunite a handful of times later. Bruce was the first to pass away in Oct. 2014 when he lost his battle with liver cancer, and Baker followed last October at age 80. With Clapton serving as the sole survivor of the group, it feels like there’s more urgency to this release, at least from the listener’s perspective. The chance the band will “get back together again” is nonexistent. All fans have left are the recordings—and the more they have access to, the better.
Rock ‘n’ roll culture remembers Cream as one of the first real supergroups, a powerhouse trio that brought something new to every concertgoing experience. Clapton, Bruce and Baker were too great on their own to last long together, but what they delivered as Cream is undeniably valuable to the rock cannon. Those who never got the chance to attend a show will always regret the loss, but having new material released like this so long after Cream’s conclusive end is a pretty solid concession.
AUDIO: Cream The Goodbye Tour: Live 1968