Although the “once-in-a-lifetime” Cream reunion presented in London five months ago turned out to be anything but a one-off, the sense of anticipation that filled the air when Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker took the stage at Madison Square Garden Monday was thicker than anything those ketchup commercial makers ever could’ve imagined. The show, the trio’s first on U.S. soil in more than 3½ decades, was trumpeted as a mega-event — a build-up that this two-hour perf largely justified.
Interestingly, the sense of significance didn’t seem to weigh all that heavily on the band’s members, who ambled onto the refreshingly unadorned stage casually and lit into a rangy “I’m So Glad” that served to prove Bruce hadn’t lost any of his impressive vocal range — and to showcase the still-potent crackle in Baker’s jazzy drumming.
Baker also provided a highlight by deadpanning his way through the oddball spoken-word interlude “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” perhaps the most blatant nod to the experimentalism that characterized the band’s heyday.
The perf could have used more of that boat-rocking. Yes, there were flashes of radicalism — notably a careening, power-packed version of “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” which Clapton said was being performed in concert for the first time — but more often, the tone was one of tasteful virtuosity. That approach worked best when the trio pumped up the volume, particularly on “Sunshine of Your Love” and a freewheeling “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” that saw Bruce trade his bass for a harmonica that he blew with an almost biblical urgency.
Missing, however, in much of the set was the sense of tension that drove not only the concerts the band staged in its original incarnation, but the albums recorded under the Cream moniker. Instead of tweaking one another with off-the-cuff improvisational fire, the trio acted more like members of a support group, ready to unfurl a safety net if one should stumble.
While no outright missteps occurred — something of a surprise, given the amount of rust that ought to have accumulated over their decades apart — a tentative quality permeated several of the evening’s performances, notably a passive version of “N.S.U.” and an “Outside Woman Blues” that, if played in a blindfold test, could be attributed to pretty much any bar band in America. Call Clapton on the carpet for that, as he — unlike his bandmates — seemed uninterested in slipping (or unable to slip) into his old playing style, hewing instead to his post-millennial sleekness.
Energy levels escalated as the set drew to a close, with late-evening versions of “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” — split by a stentorian “Toad” — affirming the band’s position in the power-trio pantheon. And while it would have been nice to see them stake that claim more aggressively, Baker, Bruce and Clapton are clearly past the point of worrying about a legacy they’re satisfied can’t be sullied. On this night, at least, it emerged unscathed, if unfurthered.