Cream of the Dream Crop: One Last Chance to See Jack Bruce

Baby boomers are seeing way too many of their musical heroes listed in the obituaries these days, the most recent Joe Cocker on December 22.

The one this year that hit me the hardest, though, was the death of Jack Bruce, the incomparable bass player of 1960s British super power trio Cream.

The blues, jazz and rock worlds all mourned when the innovative multi-instrumentalist who confidently knew how to write and carry a tune died of liver disease on October 25.

His Cream cohort, Guitar God Eric Clapton, wrote on his Facebook page, "It is with great sadness that we learned that Jack Bruce had passed away this morning at his home in England. He was a great musician and composer, and a tremendous inspiration to me."

Bruce and the late John Entwistle of the Who were -- and still are -- my favorite rock bassists, and it was always a thrill to hear their stylistic playing, whether in concert or on record.

My older brother John, whose musical tastes (other than his early preference for Beach Boys over Beatles) strongly informed mine, first turned me on to Cream.

If memory serves me correctly (and remember, it was the '60s), John convinced me Cream was a band worth checking out by sharing his copy of a respected music magazine, which included a poll of top rockers in various categories. Bruce (bass), Clapton (electric guitar) and fellow Cream member Ginger Baker (drums) were at the top of their respective lists.

Cream was a mainstay in the record collection after that, but unfortunately we never saw them perform together live. The next best thing, though, might have been experiencing Blind Faith with Clapton and Baker (in 1969 at Chicago's International Amphitheatre) and (Leslie) West, Bruce & (Corky) Laing (in 1972 at the Warehouse in New Orleans), seeing the three former Cream-mates still at the top of their game after moving on.

As Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, wrote of Bruce about their initial touring encounters, "Musically he was the most forceful bass player I had ever played with. He approached the gig almost as if the bass were a lead instrument, but not to the point where it got in the way, and his understanding of time was phenomenal. All this was reflected in his personality, fiery and quick witted."

For those like me still missing Bruce (right), those traits are available to see in the recently released DVD package Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts (MIG Music). Of the three formats that include two concert DVDs, one is a "Special Edition" that also offers a bonus DVD (additional footage and interviews), a bonus CD (The Lost Tracks), two 12-page booklets and more.

It likely isn't a coincidence that this entertaining piece of his musical legacy is available now. It's just a shame this well-produced video series of 21-year-old shows wasn't released in time for Bruce, his family, friends and longtime fans to enjoy long before his premature passing at age 71.

Ironically, only days before Bruce's death, it was announced that all six of Cream's studio and live LPs (about four hours of music) were finally being issued as a vinyl boxed set -- Cream 1966-1972 (Universal Music Enterprises) -- also in time for Christmas.

For album collectors, old-school aficionados of the group who might want to update their stash (I still own -- and cherish -- 8-track copies of Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II that managed to outlive the tape player) or rock 'n' roll buffs who were born after the term "heavy metal" was invented, this is a must-have stack of wax that will take listeners far beyond a nostalgic trip.

While studio versions of "Sunshine of You Love" (Disraeli Gears) and "White Room" (Wheels of Fire) still get played predictably on classic rock radio stations, it's the longer, live renditions of those numbers that let Bruce, Clapton and Baker shine in all their improvisational glory.

And while Bruce said last April, in his final interview with Rolling Stone, that jamming and including a 20-minute Baker drum solo almost every night "became a bug bearer really," it's still fun to hear the studio version of Toad (5:09 on their Fresh Cream debut) vs. the extended live cut (15:53) on Wheels of Fire, the world's first platinum-selling double album that's filled with many of Bruce's signature songs.

Seeing one of the Cream reunion shows in 2005 -- either at London's Royal Albert Hall or New York's Madison Square Garden -- 37 years after their famed farewell concerts -- would have been the ultimate dream. But I have to admit that -- on the 2005 DVD at least -- their performance seemed to lack the energy and the magic that existed on vinyl during their heyday.

It was a most pleasant surprise then, to watch Bruce's birthday party bash -- an "epic voyage," he promised -- on DVD. The music has been available since 1993 on a double CD called Cities of the Heart, which has been part of my collection for years.

Billed as a "late 50th birthday present," the native of Glasgow, Scotland (born on May 14, 1943), played with an all-star cast at the E-Werk in Cologne, Germany, on November 2-3, 1993, the year Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 12 years before the hyped reunions.

Guest players included Baker (right), Dick Heckstall-Smith (the onetime Graham Bond Organization saxophonist leading a brass section), former Humble Pie guitarist Clem Clempson, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Bruce's sons Malcolm (acoustic guitar, keyboards) and Jonas (piano, keyboards).

Having actually preferred his early solo albums such as Songs for a Tailor and Harmony Row over Clapton's initial breakaway efforts, it was a pleasure to see performances of songs like "Can You Follow," and Bruce on piano (and in excellent voice) for "Never Tell Your Mother She's Out Of Tune" and "Theme From an Imaginary Western," all featured on Disc 1 of the promo copy I received.

Guest vocalists joined Bruce for others, including "Boston Ball Game, 1967" (Gary "Mudbone" Cooper) and 1992 Somethin' Else cuts "Ships in the Night" (fine Scottish singer Maggie Reilly) and "Willpower" (both Cooper and Reilly).

Most of the Cream songs are relegated to Disc 2, which starts quietly with Bruce accompanied by two young cellists on acoustic tunes ("As You Said," "Rope Ladder To The Moon") soon followed by a Simon Phillips drum solo.

Then Bruce cranks it up with timeless classics like "N.S.U.," "Sitting on Top of the World" and "Politician" with essentially two different lineups.

Lyricist Pete Brown (wearing a fiery red shirt) gets a rare chance to share the spotlight with his longtime friend and collaborator. And down the stretch, as Baker beats the drums with an ever-present cigarette in his mouth, former Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore (left) trades licks with Bruce, their intense interplay an added attraction.

Sadly, Moore is no longer with us either, the life of the stellar Northern Irish musician cut short by a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 58.

At least their joyous shared performance is beautifully captured here for all the world to appreciate. For me, it was reminiscent of July 22, 2008, my last chance to see an up-close-and-personable Bruce, who apparently lived the latter stages of his career in a relatively content state of mind while battling back physically from a 2003 liver transplant that his body first rejected.

"I'm quite a cheerful old chap," he told Rolling Stone in that same 2014 interview. "I quite like to just enjoy my life."

That was evident during that 2008 show at Fiddler's Green south of Denver, where Bruce shared the stage with a stellar group of musicians including guitarist Godfrey Townsend for the Hippiefest tour of classic acts.

Even if he wasn't the night's headliner on a bill that included Eric Burdon and the revamped Animals, Bruce seemed refreshed, relaxed and perfectly satisfied.

If only there were another encore.

Photos courtesy of MVD Entertainment Group.