"Live at the Fillmore"

The misleading title is an example of the rock icons Bill Grahame’s Fillmores had become by 1968. Recording a live album at one of the Fillmores (preferably Fillmore West in San Francisco) showed how high you were in the rock hierarchy. It clearly must have been considered a sales/promotional advantage as only one track on this album was actually recorded there! But that’s really a comment on the industry not Cream themselves and it must also be said that many great, and several classic, live albums have come from both these venues.

Cream had to be recorded live – they built their reputation on live performance throughout Europe and America (but never to Australia!!!!!). Their performances were, at best, incendiary, at worst, better than most on their best night. Chemistry, not rigid rehearsal/structured performance, was the key element for their live performances and this was a jazz ethos. When they performed at the Fillmore West, the rock educated audience didn’t just anticipate instrumental brilliance but demanded it. They were an audience that wanted them to layout and jam. Bill Grahame also gave them the set time to do just that – top of the bill. Eric, Ginger and Jack responded magnificently.

At the Fillmore and Winterland they were playing through a big sound system by early ’68 standards: 2 x 100w Marshall Stacks for each guitar plus a decent PA for drums and vocals. Bill Halverson was, at the time, a premier live recording engineer and these recordings are a great example of his skills at recording very loud rock bands with the drums particularly well defined.

Live contains four tracks: an absolute Clapton tour de force, an incredible group extended improvisation, a Jack Bruce show piece and Ginger’s piece de resistance. It is one of the great and defining Live albums in Rock Music.

Track by Track

Crossroads (Robert Johnson)

Eric – lead guitar, lead vocals; Jack – bass; Ginger – drums.

[Recording: 10th March 1968 (1st show), Winterland, San Francisco, Bill Halverson eng; Adrian Barber, remix]

Crossroads was a song that Eric had been playing with the Bluesbreakers. By this stage it had undergone major reformation from an electrified delta blues to a power rock blues. It is a stunning virtuoso guitar performance: even the best of guitarists would have been pleased with a well rehearsed, planned performance coming off half as well as this but Eric just pours it out live for 4 stunning minutes, or was it 14*? Its tight, powerful, structured and improvised.

Eric plays with passion, power and finesse plus strong vocals. Jack and Ginger were never a backing rhythm section but on this Eric just roars and almost turns them into just that. Never the less, Jack and Ginger are equally inspired. The compressed energy, power and brilliance of this performance has not ebbed after 30 years: a masterpiece.

* Rumour (reinforced by Eric and Jack in interviews) was that Felix had edited an extended performance down to this version. However Marc Roberty states, after inspecting the master tapes, that it was a complete performance. Based on the evidence of other releases of tight live versions (Steppin’ Out live on BBC – see Other versions) that seems perfectly likely and that further enhances the legendary status of this performance.

Spoonful (Willie Dixon)

Eric – lead guitar; Jack – bass, lead vocals; Ginger – drums.

[Recording: 10th March 1968 (1st show), Winterland, San Francisco, Bill Halverson eng; Adrian Barber, remix]

Right from the start Spoonful was a key part of their repertoire. By this stage they could do anything with it and on this occasion they did it for over 16 minutes. Such extended group improvisations were standard for Jazz but rare in Rock. Being performed by a trio was even more stunning.

With hindsight, Rock critics (and Eric himself) have rejected the performance as excessive and indulgent, especially in contrast to Crossroads. That is a pop song view of Cream but, when listening with a Jazz sensibility, it remains an exciting and always rewarding experience. It is a true group performance of which you can listen to in totality or concentrate on a particular instrument. When you listen to each individual instrument you realise that you are hearing three highly skilled/creative soloists interacting at a complex sub-conscious level.

While I’m saying that it is actually closer to Jazz then Rock, it is not a pure Jazz performance. Spoonful is built on a series of instrumental climaxes, a blues/classical music device, rather than the even jazz technical performance. This style of performance actually began to intrude into Jazz due to the impact of Cream and Hendrix. Even in Jazz, however, Cream’s style of combining power improvisation from each member in ensemble is unusual.

[Vinyl Side 2]

Traintime (Jack Bruce)

Jack - harmonica, lead vocals; Ginger – drums.

[Recording: 8th March 1968 (1st show), Winterland, San Francisco, Bill Halverson eng; Adrian Barber, remix]

Jack’s harmonica extravaganza also goes back to the early (Graham Bond) days but now with reduced lyrics. Jack is not a great harmonica player and borrows heavily from Sonny Terry but his enormous musical talent allows him to create a very effective performance. The unflagging energy hides his technical limitations on the instrument and makes it sound quite spectacular. Ginger’s unflagging train rhythms, on brushes, combine to propel it along.

Toad (Ginger Baker)

Ginger – drums; Eric – lead guitar; Jack – bass.

[Recording: 7th March 1968, Fillmore West (2nd show), San Francisco, Bill Halverson eng; Adrian Barber, remix]
Note: version on "Those were the Days" includes additional guitar/bass edited in from another performance.

The only recording that excuses the album’s title- [marketing excuse:] well it does occupy over 37% of the time!

Again, with that wonder of knowledge – hindsight, critics have savaged this track. Yes, it’s a drum solo and yes, its long – SO WHAT! Listen to the playing!!!

Drum solos are hard to appreciate on recordings, even by the very best Jazz drummers. Drum solos are a very visual enjoyment live and that is lost when only listening to the recording. In a technical Jazz view it is not a great drum solo, but technique is not what Ginger is about as he is closer to the African drumming sensibility. Patterns are built and varied then dropped and a new pattern is built, varied, dropped. His energy is just unbelievable.

Unfortunately his soloing was used as an excuse for real excess by far too many much inferior drummers. Ginger remains one of Rock’s finest ever drummers and Toad is the evidence.

PS. Maybe it is bit long, but hey, this is ’68 – lets demand another solo!

Updated 14th Oct 1997

1997 by Graeme Pattingale