I was completely captivated by Cream’s Wheels of Fire when it came out in the summer of 1968. In particular, I played the live disc over and over, probably much to the dismay of our long suffering next door neighbors. I had actually received Disraeli Gears as a present at Christmas the year before, but my father was much more of a fan of it at the time than I was, although it certainly grew on my by the time Wheels of Fire came out. When Cream’s farewell tour was announced in late summer 1968, we got tickets. Ironically, this was still not to get me to the fabled ballrooms in San Francisco. Instead, the concert was to be held at the nearly new Oakland Coliseum Arena (now Oracle Arena), just off of the Nimitz Freeway (now Hwy 880) in Oakland. The giant Arena, developed in conjunction with the adjacent outdoor Oakland Coliseum, opened in 1966 as an urban alternative to the aging and cavernous Cow Palace across the bay in Daly City.
Although all of the Cream appearances in San Francisco had been held at the Fillmore Auditorium or Winterland, under the aegis of Bill Graham’s organization, the Oakland show was put on by a different promoter, Concert Associates, Inc. Graham had booked Cream for two extended engagements at Fillmore/Winterland, one in August-September 1967, and the second in March, 1968, but apparently Graham refused to come up with the fees demanded by Cream manager Robert Stigwood so Cream had bypassed San Francisco on their June, 1968 tour (playing instead at the San Jose Civic Auditorium) and did not book the Farewell tour show in Oakland. Also, Graham had yet to try to build a market for shows at the huge Coliseum Arena (original concert capacity ca. 15000, expanded in 1997 to 20000), although he would promote the Rolling Stones there in November of 1969 and he would start using it regularly starting in 1973. In 1968, the two biggest touring rock acts were Cream and Jimi Hendrix, so it is not that surprising that they were two of the earliest rock acts to play the Arena.
As originally booked, the Oakland Cream show was a British rock dream pairing of Cream and Traffic. However, by the time the show rolled around, Traffic was off the bill, presumably because Dave Mason’s second departure ground their tour plans to a halt. By show time, Traffic had been replaced by two acts with less commercial clout, Canadian band the Collectors and rising San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day. Both had made a few 2nd and 3rd bill gigs at the Family Dog and Fillmore by that time, but neither was a headliner by any means.
|Oakland Coliseum Arena|
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I vividly remember the drive over to Oakland that Friday night. It was the first time I had gone over the new, spacious span of the San Mateo Bridge, which had opened the previous year, and it was a somewhat surreal experience being that high over the bay. Because my father was driving, I had plenty of opportunity to gape. Although it seems pretty conventional by today’s standards, the Coliseum Arena also had a somewhat space age appeal at the time with its cylindrical shape, its vast expanses of glass, and curving promenades both indoors and outside. Despite a major indoor makeover that added an additional 5000 seats, the external appearance of the arena today is largely unchanged.
We had decent seats, on the low risers on the right side of the stage maybe 1/3 of the way back. Unlike the rock shows in San Francisco at the time, there was no light show, just conventional spots. The show was my first experiment in shooting an indoor concert, and dealing with low light always proved to be a challenge under those circumstances. What I generally did was to use Tri-X film chemically pushed to 3X its normal ASA value, which sort of worked. Today, with the aid of Photoshop, it is possible to recover a lot more detail from these negatives than I could at the time. Still, these are far from magazine quality shots, although they do have some historical significance.
|It's A Beautiful Day 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish|
It’s a Beautiful Day played a remarkable set that evening, consisting of material that would appear on their eponymous debut album in 1969, including extended versions of "Bombay Calling" and "Time Is," as well as a great version of what would become their signature piece, "White Bird." The chemistry between David LaFlamme and Santos was dynamic, and their soaring vocals and LaFlamme’s searing violin playing easily filled the gigantic room.
|The Collectors 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish|
Next up were the Collectors, an eclectic quintet from British Columbia whose dark, swirling music was a sharp contrast to IABD’s bright, sunny vibe. The hall was literally dark for their set, which is why the pictures I took of them evaded clarification even through the magic of Photoshop. The group’s debut album evoked strongly polarized opinions, but it’s magnum opus, the stark 19 minute What Love (Suite) was in heavy rotation on KSAN at the time, and was the centerpiece of their set that evening. Multi-instrumentalist Claire Lawrence played everything in sight including (as pictured) the trombone.
After a longish break, it was finally time for Cream to play. This was the opening night of the band’s Farewell tour, and the group had not performed together, or even been in the same room, for nearly four months. They apparently spent the afternoon rehearsing, and it was reportedly not the happiest of reunions. Nonetheless, they came out with figurative guns blazing for a dramatic, if musically erratic, 65 minute set. They opened with their then-current FM hit “White Room,” and it was undoubtedly the loudest thing I had heard up to that point. Both Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce were playing through two Marshall stacks, and Ginger Baker did not seem to have any trouble matching their volume, through sheer physical stamina (and some well amplified drums). Clapton’s extravagant wah-wah filigrees washed over Bruce’s sturdily rumbling bass lines, although the two did not always sound in synch. Bruce and Peter Brown’s lumbering blues “Politician” was next, with an over-the-top vocal by Bruce. Crossroads had a new intro and was performed at the kind of laid-back tempo that Clapton has favored in recent years, although his and Bruce’s rapid fire soloing offered a sharp contrast to the song’s lumbering pace. Announced as “our last single,” the group offered a perfunctory reading of “Sunshine of Your Love” highlighted by emotive shared vocals by Bruce and Clapton and Baker’s thunderous drum fills.
|Cream 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish|
Next, the group played a couple of very unusual numbers at the show that indicated their intention to showcase a bit of an expanded repertoire for their last tour. Supposedly the plan was to release a double album made up, as was Wheels of Fire, of a live disc and a studio disc, so perhaps they were hoping to capture performances of songs beyond their admittedly limited live repertoire at the time (ultimately the final album Goodbye had three tracks from the 10/19 Forum gig as well as three final studio tracks). Whatever the motivation, the attempts to expand beyond the familiar were seemingly abandoned after the Oakland gig, resulting in a couple of unique performances. “Deserted Cities of the Heart” was a somewhat experimental Bruce-Brown composition from the last album that was a harbinger of some of the interesting directions Bruce would take in his solo career. What seems to be the only live performance of the song ended up (along with "White Room" and "Politician") on both Live Cream Volume 2 and the box set Those Were the Days. It’s a spirited but perfunctory performance, with both Bruce and Baker pushing the tempo, and Clapton taking a fiery solo between the verses.
|Ginger Baker 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish|
The show ended with an equally ragged, but energetic version of “I’m So Glad,” and no encore was forthcoming. Listening to the excellent stereo soundboard of this show that circulates today, it is easy to be critical of one of the group’s less than stellar performances. However, I consider myself lucky to have been able to see Cream, warts and all. To juxtapose two overused but entirely appropriate rock critic clichés, they truly were an elemental force of nature onstage, and the strength of the three personalities (and those Marshall stacks) made for a larger than life performance.