Friday, November 10, 2023

Various Artists - Heavenly Cream: An Acoustic Tribute To Cream

So here we have an array of big names, including the likes of Bernie Marsden, Ginger Baker, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Rodgers and Maggie Bell, getting together in various combinations to deliver an acoustic tribute to Cream.  This raises a coupla questions, I’d say.  Like, why acoustic?  And really, when you get right down to it, just - why?
The answer to the second question seems to be simply that it was cooked up as a result of a discussion between a Quarto Valley Records and sometime Cream lyricist Pete Brown, the latter then kicking off the trawl for some personnel.  As for the first question, your guess is as good as mine.
It's Ginger Baker - stand well back!
And since we’re talking about Pete Brown, the guy crops up to sing on three tracks here: ‘White Room’, ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’ and ‘Politician’.  And his vocals are, to be blunt, consistently duff.  It’s a significant handicap to all three songs, though ‘White Room’ is at least graced by an interesting string arrangement.  But towards the end of a rather plodding take on ‘Politician’ Brown reaches a real low with a spoken interlude that is simply embarrassing.
To be honest, the omens aren’t that good right from the intro to the opening ‘I Feel Free’, where the “bomp-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp” vocal motif is accompanied by some ill-advised plonking piano notes from Malcolm Bruce, the multi-instrumentalist son of Jack Bruce who is a mainstay of the album’s cast list.  Thankfully he makes more positive contributions elsewhere, such as his wistful, controlled vocal on the airy ‘We’re Going Wrong’ (also featuring some tasteful strings), and his excellent elasticated bass on ‘Deserted Cities Of The Heart’.
‘Deserted Cities . . .’ is one of two tracks featuring Joe Bonamassa, who brings the lyrics to life with a punchy vocal, over some steely strumming in tandem with Bernie Marsden, and also contributes a highly enjoyable spangly acoustic solo.  Bonamassa and Marsden also join forces on a satisfying version of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, deploying a buzzing guitar effect to add some
The late lamented Bernie Marsden does his stuff
extra zip over the suitably pummelling drums and percussion of Ginger Baker – yes indeed – and Abass Dodoo respectively.
There are some other good moments too, notably on the celebrated Cream covers ‘Crossroads’, ‘Spoonful’ and ‘Sitting On The Top Of The World’.  Bernie Marsden digs out a growl to provide some necessary earthiness on the first, and adds a sterling acoustic solo - naturally.  And while I’m not keen on Bobby Rush’s normal schtick, he certainly brings authentic blues groaning and squawking harp to ‘Spoonful’ and ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’, on the latter duetting with Maggie Bell, whose pipes are also still in full working order.
But here’s the thing: these renditions have much more to do with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon than Cream.  And that’s fine by me, but seems to miss the point.
Elsewhere, Deborah Bonham delivers a fine vocal on a slinky reading of ‘Badge’.  But when Paul Rodgers pops up on the closing ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ my first thought is that it’s not a patch on the version on his own Royal Sessions album, and would have benefitted from the warmth and depth of that album’s horns. But guess what?  Elsewhere on this set we have the legendary Pee Wee Ellis contributing sax to ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses” and the nondescript ‘Sweet Wine’, along with trumpet from Henry Lowther.  Go figure.
So Heavenly Cream is a strange brew of good stuff and misfires, and in fact an odd project altogether.  I come back to that question – why acoustic?  Cream’s studio stuff may sound a bit undercooked nowadays, but they really made their name by cranking everything up live: the virtuosity, the jamming, and yes, the volume.  They were the original power trio.  So why dream up a tribute that travels resolutely in the opposite direction?  Beats me squire.
Heavenly Cream: An Acoustic Tribute To Cream is out now on Quarto Valley Records.

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