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Supergroup Cream rises again

After four decades, the legendary trio returns to the stage

By CNN's Gordon Isfeld

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Eric Clapton
Ginger Baker
Jack Bruce
Cream

LONDON, England (CNN) -- It could have gone all terribly wrong. Jack Bruce could have passed out during his bass solo. Ginger Baker could have expired amid a flurry of drumsticks. Or the two could have just beaten each other silly right there on stage. All the while guitarist Eric Clapton would be gently weeping in the wings.

None of this would have surprised Cream fans in the 1960s -- the acrimony and excesses within the supergroup being as well known as their musical riffs.

But that was then, this is now.

Thirty-seven years after the group performed its final concert at Royal Albert Hall, the trio returned to the same venue on Monday, much changed but still very much revered.

"Thanks for waiting all these years," Clapton admonished the crowd of mostly over 50s during the first of four sold-out concerts in London. "We're going to play every song we know."

Well, not quite. In just over two hours, Cream ripped through 18 songs -- beginning with "I'm So Glad" and then on to "Spoonful," "Badge," "Born Under a Bad Sign," "Sitting On Top of the World" and "White Room."

After a tentative start and strained vocals on the first song, the group grew tighter, more assured and even energized. It was during "White Room" and the encore offering of "Sunshine of Your Love" that the audience -- and the group -- seemed to be dragged (singing and swaying) from the past into the present, without missing a beat.

Cream burst onto the scene unexpectedly in 1966 -- three musicians little known outside their individual musical spheres but very much aware of their own abilities, as was evident in the choice of group's name. And for just over two years (from 1966 to 1968), they were indeed the crème de la crème.

Clapton, now 60, was still in his teens when he showed himself to be a guitar wizard with the Yardbirds and then legendary John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It was Baker who first approached Clapton about forming a group. It was Clapton who suggested Bruce as the third member -- an idea that didn't go down well with Baker, who had fallen out with the Scotsman when they were both members of the Graham Bond Organisation, a British rhythm and blues band. Despite the animosity between the two -- something that would take on violent overtones and self-destructive behavior in years ahead -- Baker and Bruce agreed to work together again.

Gone on Monday was the acrimony, along with the extended improvisations and half-hour solos.

Somewhere in the vacuum of career transitions and personal crisis, Clapton and company appear to have become a group, perhaps really for the first time. Mature, paced and professional, and begging the question: How good would these guy have been in the early days if not for drugs, alcohol and egos?

Still, as Baker launched into his obligatory drum solo (at under six minutes, far shorter than his trademark outings), a fan yelled out, "You go old man." He didn't need the encouragement.

Why the three agreed to a reunion at this time and place is not yet clear. They're not talking publicly.

Clapton certainly doesn't need the money. The others clearly do, but at what cost to their physical well-being? Bruce had a liver transplant in 2003, while Baker reportedly suffers from arthritis.

But Clapton hinted at a possible reunion in 1993, when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and played a brief set for the audience. "I was moved," Clapton is quoted as saying in "To The Limits," a 2003 book by Forbes magazine's Jim Clash. "I was in some other place. It's been so long since I've been around something from somebody else that's inspired me." Up until then, he added, "it's been up to me to inspire me."

For his part, Bruce, 61, has admitted that cash has also been a factor but so has Cream's place in history. "Apart from the money... that band tends to get overlooked these day," he says in Clash's book. "Led Zeppelin, for instance, has gotten a lot of recognition, and quite rightly so. But, it seems to be forgotten that Cream and (Jimi) Hendrix really created that audience. A reunion would help clarify that."

Baker, 65, who struggled with a heroin addiction for many years, had been less enthusiastic about getting back together. "A lot of people think I'm dead ... but that's nothing new," he tells Clash. "There was a point where I wanted to do it, when I totally went broke. ... That is not a reason to do something, you know." But they did do it, and now the question is: Why did anyone care? Earlier this month, the poet Pete Brown -- who, along with Bruce, wrote many of Cream's best-known songs -- told The Telegraph newspaper the band's enduring appeal was simply a matter of quality. "There's really no substitute for great playing and writing," he said. "You can chuck things into a computer and get people off the street who look great, but in the end they aren't going to do anything that lasts."

On a Monday evening in London, four decades on, that quality came through loud (but not too loud) and clear.

And to answer the question of why and why now on Clapton's behalf ... with many of his old friends and colleagues now dead, it's perhaps comforting to be encircled by those who helped get you where you are today. The comfort of friends reconciled and wiser ... while they last.

For those who missed Monday's concert, and the others, the marketers have been busy.

"I Feel Free - Ultimate Cream," a 2 CD set billed as "the definitive collection from the original supergroup," was released on Monday. They include studio and live performances by Cream.

There's also a "Special Edition - Limited Deluxe" 3 CD box set, which includes BBC sessions and interviews with Clapton.

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