Firstly, this was a Clapton-curated event so was based exclusively around Ginger’s output between ‘66 and ‘69. For fans of the Graham Bond / Airforce / Baker Gurvitz Army / Fela Kuti versions of the man should move on because there’s nothing for them to see here.
There was quite a ‘special event vibe’ percolating around the crowd outside, then inside the venue. I’ve not been to many standing gigs at Hammersmith (Stray Cats last year, Portishead in 2008), so the chance to join a chilly queue underneath the A4 flyover was a welcome one. An unscientific and probably wholly unrepresentative survey of the accents and Storm-Dennis-travel-horror stories amongst those who had arrived the obligatory three-or-four hours in advance of doors indicates that a lot of transatlantic and European fans had made the pilgrimage and smelled something epic and historic in the air.
The whole event was geared towards raising money for the Leonard Cheshire charity, so some videos about the work it does were run while we waited. We then got a five minute rough cut of Ginger banging on his toms and banging on about his attitude towards drumming, seemingly culled from the “Beware Of Mr Baker” documentary (although none of the associated muso-on-director violence was included in the footage).
At a very prompt eight o’clock (the gig was over by nine thirty: these are old men who clearly cherish a regular early night) Eric Clapton wandered on and said more in the first moment of this show than I have heard him utter in total during thirty five-odd gigs over the past thirty five-odd years. He called Ginger a “scoundrel” but that he had never “suffered at the wrong end of his sharp tongue…which is why I’m prepared to do this tonight.” Curmudgeonly understatement was clearly hiding a very deep affection between the two men, however, so after some muttered stuff about “love”, he rapidly cranked up “Sunshine Of Your Love” and got the shenanigans underway.
Unwary / visually challenged punters seemingly weren’t quite sure of who was ‘in the band’ because a sizeable group on the front barrier were taken aback when Eric only bothered to name check Roger Waters as the randomly unassuming bloke skulking on bass in the far corner once that first song had finished. And that was the theme of the night: most of the ‘name’ guests were unflashy in their service of the songs and it was a night when the demonstrations of FIGJAM were few and far between. Ronnie Wood made some squonky and mildly decorative noises during “White Room” and “Badge”; Paul Carrack added spectacular Jack Bruce-esque vocals to a lot of the Cream material; Katie Kissoon and Sharon White held the melodies, harmonies and lyrics together when Eric forgot words or tunes and stepped away from the mic (and who can blame him when he’s rarely had to bother with songs like “Blue Condition” and “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” for over fifty years). MVP for most of the night was Nile Rodgers who coloured in the background sections with some wonderful wah and rhythm guitar. He did also stretch out on a couple of funky solos which rescued some of the material from becoming too lumpen (I’m looking at you “In The Presence Of The Lord”). And as befits a tribute to a monster drummer there were never fewer than two tub-thumpers on stage at any given moment. Sonny Emory and Steve Gadd were locked in tight all night, and were variously joined by Henry Spinetti, Kenney Jones and eventually Ginger’s son Kofi.
Yes; he ‘did “Toad”’. Yes; it went on for far too long.
The set list was a dream for fans of a certain age: straight Cream and Blind Faith. Clapton really let go and played with more freedom and virtuosity than he has aired during most his ‘regular’ tours since the turn of the millennium. For an artist who doesn’t often make variations or take risks with his typical set lists from year to year, this was a lovely thing to see and hear. Collaborating with Steve Winwood seems to bring out the best in Clapton and most of the Blind Faith material really flew.
For a night fraught with a rather febrile atmosphere of expectation on our side of the stage, it all seemed delightfully casual and cavalier where the professionals were stood and was all the better for it.
Nile Rodgers couldn’t put his Strat down during the curtain call, and when all the hugging and bowing nonsense had finished and the musos had ambled off, he was still alone at the centre mic, wriggling out an extended coda / solo to “Crossroads” and calling for Clapton to come back. Eric didn’t.
One random observation… I went to see The 1975 at another standing show two days later, and the manners amongst the teen / twenties audience on the floor for that occasion were markedly better than they were amongst the Boomers at the Ginger gig. I have no problem with the whole shoving, jostling, sharp-elbowing, space-encroaching and standing-position-envy which goes with any proper rock experience; it was much worse than usual at Hammersmith, though, with some very aggressive argy-bargy in some areas by the barrier…and as for the incessant videoing, photography and waving smart ‘phones in your neighbour’s face? These balding, plumping, ancient-tour-T-shirt toting geezers were at it like knives all night long. In contrast, the kids on the floor for The 1975 were unfailingly polite, respectful of their close bystanders, and unbelievably as a whole were much better at keeping their devices in their pockets. I don’t know what the moral is of that snapshot of what were obviously just the immediate spaces around me on the nights, and others’ mileage may vary. I’ll just leave it hanging in the air.
But it was great to be there, and I know I’m lucky that I got the opportunity to hear live versions of songs I never thought Eric would crack open for public inspection again after the Cream reunion fifteen years ago.
It made me think..
Baker himself would have probably hated it. Which is probably what he would have wanted.