Cafe Au Go Go (Oct '67) & Hunter College (March '68)
by Keith Kaufman
I began playing guitar in 1965, learning originally from the Black Blues Masters, and listening to Danny Kalb (of the Blues Project), Michael Bloomfield (of the Paul Butterfield Blues band), Jeff Beck (then of the Yardbirds) and Eric Clapton (then of the Yardbirds and the short-lived band 'Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse').
|By mid 1967, I had yet to hear Clapton's 'Bluesbreakers' album or 'Fresh Cream'. However, I unexpectedly heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the first time at a Reingold (Beer) Festival outdoor concert in Central Park, New York City, during the summer of that year(July 5). Hendrix was a surprise warm-up act for the main act, The Rascals. Needless to say, Hendrix blew the audience away - especially me. Oceans of tone, wide vibrato that sent shivers through your body. I was so taken aback by this monstrous display of what was obviously the future that all I remember, other than the sound and appearance of the Experience, was the song 'Purple Haze'. This was all before the release of Hendrix's first album 'Are You Experienced'.|
I next saw Hendrix at the Cafe Au Go-Go in New York City several weeks later (July 21-23). I got a seat in the front row - and wound up sitting next to Eric Clapton, who came to hear the Experience as he was a huge fan. Eric was with a tall pretty girl with long hair, probably his girlfriend at the time, Charlotte. I muttered a few words to him ('are you going to jam tonight?', or something equally sophomoric), but did not think that much of the incident at the time. Remember, I still had not yet heard the 'Bluesbreakers' or 'Fresh Cream' albums. Hendrix's set, which was about an hour, was incredible. Hendrix appeared to be drunk, but it didn't seem to take anything away from the emotionality of his playing. He played mostly straight blues numbers, such as 'Redhouse'. The Cafe Au Go-Go only seats about 300 people, so I was literally sitting directly in front of Hendrix's wah-wah pedal. Hendrix used a Fender Strat with single Marshall stack. After the concert (Clapton didn't jam that night), I told some friends about the incident, one of whom whipped out a copy of 'Fresh Cream' and played it. I was completely awestruck - after all, I had just sat next to this guy, who was playing the finest electric guitar I had ever heard on record. Most important, he had that tone and sustain we had all been striving for with our equipment. I immediately ran out and purchased both 'Fresh Cream' and the Bluesbreakers' albums - and I have been devoted to the muse pouring through both these albums, and to mastering that style of guitar playing, ever since.
I saw Cream at the Cafe Au Go-Go in the fall of 1967 (Sept 26-30, Oct 1, 3-8). Pictures from the 1967 Cafe Au Go-Go concerts, as well as photos from the Disraeli Gears recording sessions at Atlantic Records studios in New York, appeared subsequently in the premiere issue of the now defunct 'Eye' magazine. The Cafe Au Go-Go concert was amazing. Certainly loud, but it could easily have been much louder, since I couldn't seem to get enough of Clapton's awesome guitar tone. I brought a camera with me, so I was able to place myself kneeling directly in front of Clapton, and still it wasn't loud enough for me. I remember being struck by Clapton's vibrato, which, as a reviewer at Time magazine put it, 'quivered like an arrow that has hit its mark'. Clapton and Bruce had a single Marshall stack each, and Clapton played his psychedelic Gibson SG Les Paul. I don't remember many details from that night, other than the shear power and beauty of Clapton's guitar tone, but I know the group played mostly from Fresh Cream, as well as 'Sunshine of Your Love' which hadn't been released yet.
The next opportunity to see Cream was on March 29, 1968 (I still have the ticket stubs) at Hunter College Auditorium in New York City, which seats about 500. By now, I had had ample opportunity to dissect Clapton's playing from his three released pivotal albums (Bluesbreakers, Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears), and was coming to hear Cream with a more analytical perspective. I was seated in the third row of the balcony, which was only about 75 feet from the front of the stage. The opening act was an unknown and unmemorable group called 'Apple' (or something similar), after which the curtain closed. About 15 minutes later, Clapton, standing behind the curtain, hit a note on his guitar (probably an open A), and I vividly remember the tone and sense of power that one note brought back to me; I knew that what was coming would be a revelatory experience. As the curtain opened, Cream began with the opening bars to 'Sunshine of Your Love', which was played with tremendous energy and angry drive, similar in intensity to the version on Live Cream Volume 2. Clapton and Bruce had two Marshall stacks each, with Clapton again working his painted SG Les Paul. The group played for about 75 minutes. After 'Sunshine', the group played N.S.U. (similar in intensity to the version on Live Cream Volume 1) and one or two other numbers that I'm unable to remember now. What has stuck in my memory forever was what followed, which was a 20-minute version of Steppin' Out, with Clapton playing solo (later rejoined by Baker) for the second half of the song, as he did on Live Cream Volume 2. They ended with Traintime and Toad.
At the end, I was completely drained of emotion. It didn't seem humanly possible for anyone to play that well, with such intensity, technical clarity, lyricism, and emotion. It was the closest thing in my life that approached a religious experience. The amazing thing about Clapton, in addition to his tone with Cream and Mayall, is his subtlety and his minor imperfections, which always seem deliberate in order to heighten the musical tension. The music at Hunter College was loud, but again, like at the Cafe Au Go-Go, they could have turned it up more, just to be able to be further immersed in that incredible guitar tone. I have never again heard anything that sounded so good, or which drilled right through you, as Clapton's SG played through Marshall stacks. In particular, the extended version of Steppin' Out, with Clapton's ingenious twists on the basic theme that continually amazed you with unexpected bends and off-rhythm tempos, combined with awesome tone and piercing vibrato, has remained in my head ever since. It was not until Live Cream Volume 2, with its own monumental version of Steppin' Out, was released several years later that I would be able to hear this song any differently.
My last opportunity to see Cream was at their farewell US tour in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Although the group was obviously tired by now, the major limitation of the concert was the revolving stage placed in the center of the arena. This meant that you only heard the instruments head on when the stage was facing you (only about 15% of the time). Clapton played a Gibson Firebird I, through Marshall Stacks. The following year, I again saw Clapton, this time with Blind Faith, at Madison Square Garden and once again on the revolving stage. Clapton again played the Gibson Firebird, through a single Marshall Stack. While certainly a great gig, Clapton had already last some of his drive by this time.
In 1970, I saw Clapton again, at the first Derek and the Dominoes concert at the Marquee club in London. While the audience was laudatory, I was crushed - Clapton played a Gibson Les Paul Special or Stratocaster, and the magical tone and the angry drive were absent. Instead of unadulterated passion and power, Clapton's playing seemed a shadow of his former self. While some of the live material since 1970 (most notably some of the work with Albert Lee on the 'Just One Night' concert double CD) has had its occasional moments, Cream in concert was, in comparison, an unstoppable, relentless force, an event where every second was a revelation. Cream's unique combination of talent, with competing yet complementary talents and personalities, led to a unique zygotic fusion which we are unlikely to see (or hear) again.
Those who lust for Clapton's best work should listen to Eric Johnson's demonstration of how Clapton influenced his playing on his instructional video 'Total Electric Guitar'.
Keith's photos from Cafe Au Go Go (© Keith Kaufman, 2000)
© Keith Kaufman, 2000