Mar 7, 2018

Cream / Jefferson Airplane: Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 1968

Impressions of Cream and Jefferson Airplane

The Jefferson Airplane and Cream appeared not long ago at Brandeis University in concerts a month apart. The concerts will be discussed here conjointly because they afford interesting and natural comparisons and because the rock of these two groups is representative of much currently important popular music. (My opening remarks are directed primarily at the jazz listener trying to ease his way into rock; those who have been digging it right along won't find much that is startling or revelatory.)
[ . . . ]
Maybe it wise to start with what won't be heard in contemporary rock - rhythmic complexity, for one thing. This has always been one of the salient ingredients of jazz, and it is lacking in rock, which for the most part is in 4/4 or free time, usually the former. Another generally missing factor is dynamic shading: rock is either loud or soft, usually the former, and until on-the-spot engineering techniques get a good deal more sophisticated - which they better had in the near future - the subtleties of rock have to be conveyed by the harmonics and voicings employed.
This brings up another point. By "loud," I do not mean Roy Eldridge loud or Count Basie loud. I mean you-have-never-heard-such-sounds-in-your-life loud, an effect that most of the recording studios minimize and that can only be apprehended in live performances. The rock musicians are into total, environmental sound in a way that players like Archie Shepp or Pharaoh Sanders can only approximate; this means that a first-time listener will not pick up on most of what he heard, because he is not used to differentiating sounds at that volume. It means that even the habitual listener may be partially deafened after a performance, sometimes for hours. Whether or not to subject yourself to such temporary or permanent discomfort is an individual decision. It is too easy to say, however, that rock is so loud that nothing of beauty or worth can be produced. That was said about certain other forms of music familiar to most Down Beat readers.
[ . . . ]
Cream and Jefferson are comparable in several ways . . . The first similarity is that both are composed of fine musicians - and are instrumentally perhaps the two most together outfits now playing.
The comparisons of virtuosity extend further.
Casady and Bruce are the only two interesting electric bassists I have ever heard. Likewise, few rock drummers, however dextrous, extend their rhythmic conceptions much beyond symmetrically divided 4/4; Baker and Dryden are exceptions. (Terry Clarke, John Handy's former drummer, now with the Fifth Dimension, and the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts are others; significantly, all these percussionists have jazz roots.) Kaukonen and Clapton are among the handful of gifted guitarists, technically and conceptually.
Clapton in particular has few or no technical equals, in jazz or rock. He has to be heard to be believed. Kaukonen's chops are a cut below, although I wouldn't want to have to live on the difference, but he more than compensates for this - he has advanced harmonic understanding; a pronounced lyrical bent unusual among hard rock players; willingness to take improvisational chances; and, most important, the wit not only to know where he is going with a phrase but also how he got there.
Even Clapton, good as he is, could profit from studying Kaukonen's phrasing. Too often, rock guitarists concentrate on climaxing a sequence, building up to it with staccato bursts that the culmination echoes and expands upon. Kaukonen's lines, like those of a first-rate jazz soloist, make sense in and of themselves. For sheer power and impact, Clapton is close to nonpareil; he overwhelms. For sustained musical interest, Kaukonen is the most compelling; he fascinates.

A final note on the Airplane, before proceeding to the Brandeis concerts: their last album, After Bathing at Baxter's, seems to me the most unified and cohesive record yet produced by an American group - indeed, it demonstrates the kind of thematic and musical oneness spuriously attributed to the last two Beatles efforts. The latter are sides with brilliant songs on them; Baxter's is One Thing. The Airplane is currently out of favor, for the sock-it-to-me approach is in and the insinuate-it-to-me approach is out, for the moment anyway, and for this reason, and a couple of others, the Airplane concert was a disappointment. Its members did their songs (White Rabbit, Somebody to Love, etc.), but they didn't do their thing.
There was little collective improvisation, and except for some fine Kaukonen, little individual improvisation. Except, too, for Gracie Slick, who never seems to do a song the same way twice. There was a further problem in that the voice mikes could not compete with the amps, and much of her and Balin's work was lost. She has great range, firm tone, presence, emotional commitment.
Miss Slick is also a fine improvisor of counterpoint, as, to a lesser extent, are Balin and Kantner. Consequently, the Airplane employs more complex vocal harmonies than probably any American rock group I know of.
A good example in the Brandeis concert was Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon, two separate songs with the same chords (except for a couple of substitutions), sung together. It started with Balin and Miss Slick on Won't and Kantner sliding in with part of Saturday. When Saturday became dominant, Balin and Kantner duetting on it, Miss Slick began running some astonishing changes on Won't. It ended very free, with the words of both songs being interchanged by the three, so that the listener had trouble knowing which was which - which, of course, was the intention.
So that was nice. And Miss Slick did White Rabbit, a beautiful, bolero-rhythm exercise in crescendo that should never stop because it hurts so good. Miss Slick strayed profitably from the recorded version: the first four bars were sung on the afterbeat, providing a nice pulsation when contrasted with the bolero rhythm by Dryden, and she finished with a bluesy trail-off instead of the final held note on the record.
Kaukonen sang an unnamed, funky blues (he should have more vocal space; he's a fine blues singer) on which he made good use of his wawa pedal in accompaniment. His solos throughout the concert were consistently rewarding, but they and Miss Slick's vocal work were about the only things that were.
The Airplane group at its best is an improvisational group, though in an artfully controlled way; when it does not improvise, it is merely good. Somebody to Love, It's No Secret, Funny Cars. Yeah, nice. But we've heard them.

The Cream concert hardly could have begun less fortunately than it did. Orpheus, a group highly touted by a recording industry flack as representative of the "Bosstown Sound" (which, FYI, does not exist), was uninteresting and offensive. (I figured out about halfway through their set that they were really a plugged-in - but hardly switched-on - version of the Kingston Trio. Same dull harmony, same bad jokes, same pseudo-hipness. Feh.)
It was then announced that Cream had had airplane trouble (no pun intended) and would be "a little late." Another backup group was hurriedly imported. It did a set. Another announcement - "They're on the way." Another set.
Cream began its set at 2:15 a.m. The incredible thing was that of a sell-out crowd of 3,000 present from 8 p.m., fully 2,500 remained, for the most part placidly, until Cream arrived. Quite a tribute.
It was deserved. If anything was worth the five-hour wait, its set was. There are some groups that really should not perform live; they are displayed better in the electronic shelter of a studio. The Beatles, and maybe the Airplane at this point, are examples. For some groups, the opposite is the case, and Cream is one of these. In the first place there is the matter of volume. A trio - right? Wrong. Seven orchestras. Each of the two guitars has four amplifiers - big, five-foot-tall amplifiers. Ginger Baker's drums had to be miked very loud to compete. Cream's sound is just this side of physically tangible. It assaults, drowns, lifts, transports, and when it stops, one feels alone, insufficient somehow.
In the second place, Cream's records - which are quite good - present the group as predominantly vocal; there are very few instrumental breaks of longer than a chorus. In person, it gets the singing out of the way in a hurry and then gets down to business. This is just as well; some of the group's songs (Tales of Brave Ulysses, which it performed this night, and SWLABR, which it didn't) have memorable lyrics, but most don't, and as vocalists, Bruce is only good and Clapton adequate. As musicians, they are superb.
The group began with Ulysses, and Clapton put the gymnasium under pulsating currents of warm water with his unerringly sensitive use of the wawa pedal. Baker, here as throughout, laid down an unyielding beat, and the three got together on an accelerating coda, which is not on the album version. They followed with NSU, a deceptively simple tune . . . [The metrical reversal in the intro] was fascinating.
So was Clapton's guitar break: whines, cat meowing, other fragmentary sounds. (He owes something of his bottom-fret climaxes to B.B. King.) The solo alternated between legato runs, usually ascending, and hard-nosed chord work. Baker, who is the baddest-looking English cat I have ever seen, reminiscent of one of Dickens' innumerable low-life villains, performed an extended solo, showing strong, strong chops, and he never misses. But the solo was strangely dull. Someone sitting next to me said, "My God. It's Sing, Sing, Sing." He wasn't far off. Baker stayed almost exclusively with 16th-note divisions, done mostly on tom-toms. He plays much more complexly on records.
They did two instrumentals, a slow blues with another fine Clapton solo that switched from double-time to the original tempo a couple of times, and then an up-tempo, 16-bar blues, with Baker doing some good brush work behind a Clapton solo. I would like to describe that solo, but I can't. My notes say, "God!" That's all. I can only say that for the two minutes or 12 hours (I have no idea exactly how long it was) that Clapton soloed, I got as high up and far out as I ever have on jazz.
Then, with Clapton laying out, a freight-train blues featuring some Bruce pyrotechnics on harmonica, including a vocal-harmonica duet with himself that at its apogee found him singing an eighth-note, blowing an eighth, and so on for two or three choruses, a la Sonny Terry. It was a remarkable display, though musically not altogether rewarding. They finished the long set with Toad, an 18-bar line divided into repeated six-bar phrases, all based on one chord. A short Clapton solo and a long Baker exercise - again, mainly with 16ths - received a standing ovation.
Cream owes its repertoire to a number of sources. It does Skip James, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson songs. Some of its instrumentalism comes from contemporary r&b players, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. It probably would not have been able to assimilate the blues concept without the pioneer imitative work of the Rolling Stones and Beatles. But the resulting amalgam is all Cream, and it is a moving, powerful, original sound.

(by Alan Heineman, from Down Beat, 25 July 1968)


  1. Having posted Heineman's negative review of Live/Dead which he contrasted with the superior Volunteers, I thought I'd add his earlier review comparing live Cream and Airplane. (I know, no Dead, just a bonus for Cream fans.)
    Heineman was one of the regular rock-music reviewers for Down Beat at the time, so he aimed his reviews at jazz listeners who might not care much for rock. (I omitted a couple paragraphs for those uninformed readers that didn't add anything.)

    Cream played at Brandeis U. on 3/23/68; Jefferson Airplane on 4/28/68.
    It seems Heineman didn't attend the best Airplane show, playing-wise; though he suggests that maybe they'd better stick to the studio, their shows became increasingly improv-heavy over the next couple years. He may have seen them again, or at least heard their 1969 live album which was a little more instrumentally stretched-out and even had a whole improv track. Down Beat didn't run any subsequent live reviews of them, but in 1970 he called them "the best band in America."

    Down Beat was rather erratic in its rock-record reviews, but had given a positive review to Fresh Cream. Heineman reviewed Wheels of Fire (in the 2/6/69 issue) and was ecstatic about it, giving it 5 stars:
    "Well, what more is there to say about this fabulous group, or for that matter, about this fabulous two-record album?
    It's been out for some time. I've postponed reviewing it because I wanted to do it justice, and it's hard to verbalize the excitement generated... There was the chance that Cream wasn't as magical and mystical as I thought. Maybe I'd been hyped.
    Nope. It's a five-star collection any way you slice it...
    The tightly arranged studio cuts, many of them metrically adventurous, have few extended solos - all these cuts are shorter than five minutes. The Fillmore tunes are forums for extended improvisation...
    The group's base is its bass. Clapton's virtuosity is so advanced and his uncanny knack of building effective, shattering climaxes so unfailing that Bruce may go unappreciated.
    Most of Clapton's solos are based on a series of climaxes; most of the climaxes are based on repetition. It is Bruce's subtle counterpoints and variations on the chords that give the ultimate texture and substance to Clapton's work. (Baker's drumming contributes too, of course, but Bruce is far more important.)
    Furthermore, a majority of Cream's tunes are structured around interesting basso ostinato figures... These figures work like the implied rhythm of a piece: once they're heavily established, the listener retains them even when the bassist doesn't state them directly. This emphasis on the lower outlines of a song increases the importance of Bruce's role; he fills it, magnificently...
    The studio cuts are all good... I confess I prefer my Cream fresh and improvising, however. This is a matter of taste and a probable hangover from my jazz background, though I don't think the group utilizes the full electronic potential of the studios, despite much overdubbing.
    The Fillmore section of the album is utterly breathtaking, the only exception being Baker's nearly 13-minute drum solo on Toad. He is one of the best rock drummers, granted. He's strong and sure and an impeccable timekeeper...[but] without difficulty one can name 15 or 20 jazz drummers who could put him under the kit in about six seconds.
    There are some good things in the solo (it's more logical and less dull under close analysis than it sounds)...but 13 minutes' worth? Not hardly...
    Baker is much better behind Bruce on Traintime - astonishingly strong and consistent brush work - and behind Clapton's superb solo on Spoonful. The whole cut of Spoonful, with its made-to-order bass riff, is a model of sensitive interplay among three brilliant musicians... Wow. May I mention...Clapton's other brilliant solo...on Crossroads, again with amazing Bruce runs behind him... Buy this record!"

  2. Another person at the Brandeis U. Cream show later wrote his memories:
    "The concert was scheduled for 8:30. We were sitting in the Brandeis gym waiting for...Cream. Their flight had been held up because of a storm in Indiana. We got updates as the hours passed; we were told "They're in Detroit!" "They've landed at Cleveland!" "They're on their way!" ...Our tickets had cost under $5, and we were sitting near the front.
    Finally the word came — they had landed at Boston and a motorcade was escorting them to the gym. It was nearing 2:30 in the morning when they took the stage. According to various accounts, no more than 100 people had given up and left the building by the time they arrived.
    It was a dramatic entrance. We gave them a standing ovation and they appreciated us the way you appreciate an audience that has cared enough to stick it out for almost six hours on backless benches. It was pretty clear that they intended to reward us for our patience.
    Exhausted, disoriented, and unlikely to be thrilled by the prospect of a 2:30 a.m. performance after dealing with hours of airplanes and storms and lightning, they were greeted like heroes and...they went at it like duelling virtuosos. There was no smiling, no appearance of rapport. Each man was on his own mission. The dynamic was based more on conflict than cohesion. They did not inspire each other: they drove each other. With his wild orange-red hair, satanic beard, and electric-blue shirt, Ginger Baker swarmed over his drums, kicking and pounding and tom-tomming at the backs of the other two like some storm-making, earth-moving denizen of the underworld. At the same time, he was so mortal, so at the mercy of his demons, there were moments when you really thought he was going to keel over and die. Bruce and Clapton rarely looked at each other. The world of sound they were making took all their attention.
    That massive, mind-numbing sound was still ringing in my ears the next afternoon when I scribbled down some impressions: 'Devastating. Complete. Unbelievable. Scary, almost unbearable. Sound as a tangible substance. Waking with pounding temples and hung over and no room in mind for anything else.'"

    As it happens, Jon Landau (who had never liked Cream much) was also at the same show and later wrote a famously negative review of it, saying that despite being virtuosos, they didn't really improvise but played nothing but copycat blues cliches. Clapton was stunned when he read it in Rolling Stone: "a review said how boring and repetitious our performance had been. And it was true! The ring of truth just knocked me backward...I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided that it was the end of the band."

    Down Beat later interviewed Clapton (in the 6/11/70 issue), asking him "What led to the demise of Cream?" Clapton gave a different, evasive answer:
    "The music became something else...the music didn't belong to us after a certain point. We went for about six or eight months constructing our own kind of feel and having a certain kind of thing which was definitely ours. Then we came to America and - the first show we did at the Fillmore - the whole thing changed completely and we found we were doing long, sort of jazz-based improvising solos with everybody jamming, battling, sympathizing - all kinds of things. But it was no longer anything to do with the concept we had of it, and it ended up, after about three or four tours of this country... Well, we just made too much money for the amount of production we put in and it screwed our heads up completely. We didn't have any real hits."