The original poster from the show

The original poster from the show

On Friday, November 1, 1968, I went to the Spectrum in Philadelphia to see Cream on their farewell tour. I had been a big fan since Fresh Cream came out early in 1967, and Jack Bruce’s bass playing was so inspiring to me that I went out and bought my first electric bass. I got Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire as soon as they were released and listened to them obsessively, marveling at what Jack was doing and hoping to emulate some of his melodic and rhythmic genius in my own playing.

That Philly concert was the only time I saw Jack play with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker—and it was unforgettable. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so; years later, Clapton told British journalist Phil Sutcliffe that “it was one of our greatest gigs ever.” While that show is not, alas, included on a new four-CD box set called Cream Goodbye Tour: Live 1968 (Polydor), this recent release does document four concerts from the tour, including the final night at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The large-format package includes a hardbound 66-page book with an essay by David Fricke that traces the course of Cream’s all-too-brief career, as well as many posters, tickets, clips, and photos (three of which are flipped, transforming Eric and Jack into left-handed players … oops). The shows were recorded on October 4 (Oakland Coliseum), October 19 (Los Angeles Forum), October 20 (San Diego Sports Arena), and November 26 (Royal Albert Hall). The first three were remastered from the original analog mix by Kevin Reeves at Universal Mastering in Nashville; the fourth was remastered by Jason NeSmith at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, Georgia. At each show, Jack Bruce is playing his famous Gibson EB-3 through Marshall amps.

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The four CDs have 36 tracks—one of them an introduction of the band by Buddy Miles at the LA show. Seventeen have been previously released in some form, six of them on the original Cream LPs (including Live Cream and Live Cream, Volume II) and/or the 1997 box set Those Were the Days (Polydor), which remains the definitive source for Cream’s music. One track, the 17-minute version of “Spoonful” from the show at the LA Forum, was released on the soundtrack for the film Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars, and the nine tracks from the Royal Albert Hall show were on the Cream Farewell Concert DVD. So, all in all, what’s on the four CDs is about half material that was available before and half new stuff.

That said, what this set offers is the opportunity to revisit the experience of being in the audience for four complete shows, hearing these young musicians—all of them were in their twenties—explore their material with the energetic improvisation that made them so exciting and influential. At the time, they were barely speaking to each other, the long-standing feud between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker having reached its peak and Eric Clapton having withdrawn from his role as mediator, tired of the whole thing. You wouldn’t know it from their playing, though, which is filled with the sort of heady back-and-forth that could elevate even the most basic blues material to the sophistication of a great jazz trio—if a lot louder. (Jack once said that Cream was actually a jazz band “. . . we just didn’t tell Eric.”)

The four shows have similar programs. Each begins with two Jack Bruce/Pete Brown originals, “White Room” and “Politician” (which still sounds topical), and there are versions of “I’m So Glad,” “Crossroads,” “Spoonful,” and “Sunshine of Your Love” every night. There are three versions of “Sitting on Top of the World” and of Jack’s harmonica feature “Traintime,” and four lengthy Ginger Baker drum solos—one bracketed with the theme from “Passing the Time,” at the October 4 show, and the other three in “Toad.” The one-offs are “Deserted Cities of the Heart” from the October 4 show (also on Live Cream, Volume II and Those Were the Days) and a short, punchy version of the blues classic “Steppin’ Out” that closes the London show. (For my money, it’s too bad they didn’t keep “Deserted Cities” on the program, as it’s one of Jack Bruce’s most underrated compositions.)

Why listen to the same songs over and over? Well … because it’s Cream and they don’t sound like the same songs. The four versions of “Crossroads” are especially interesting, all of them quite different, although none measures up to the one on Wheels of Fire, which is still, to my ears, one of the greatest live tracks played by any rock band from any era ever. The versions of “White Room and “Politician” are all strong, but my personal favorites are the four different takes on “I’m So Glad,” first recorded by Skip James in 1931. I’m not sure any band has ever gotten more out of two chords than Cream does here, and the jams on back-to-back nights in LA and San Diego are scintillating.

The sound quality on the first three discs is quite good—comparable to the live tracks on Those Were the Days but a bit more open sounding, enhancing the sense (if you turn it up) that you’re in the arena. There are some murky moments, and Jack’s bass drops out entirely during the jam on “Sunshine” in LA before returning for the closing vocals (“Sorry about the technical hang-up.”) Disc Four, with the final show, has notably worse sound—a turgid mess at first, with the bass just a rumor, although it slowly improves as the show goes on. The notoriously bad acoustics of the Albert Hall combined with the breathtaking volume of all those Marshall amps undoubtedly made it a nightmare for the sound crew—and Eric, Jack, and Ginger sometimes sound as if they’re struggling to keep it together. (“We really were much better than that,” Baker later told Chris Welch, author of Cream: The Legendary Sixties Supergroup.) Still, the final show stands as a rousing climax to their career—aside from the brief reunions in 1993 and 2005—and you can hear the unabashed enthusiasm of the audience.

If you’re just discovering Cream, or haven’t listened to them in a long time, then this box set probably isn’t the best place to start. But if you have known and appreciated this landmark band for years, as I have, then Goodbye Tour has much to enjoy—and it reminds us of the great pleasure of hearing live music played by fearless artists who were, as Eric Clapton told David Fricke, “going for the moon every time we played.” Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker are gone now, but they endure on these recordings—and as for me, well … I’m so glad.