Friday, October 8, 2010

Cream/The Collectors/It’s a Beautiful Day. Oakland Coliseum Arena 10/4/68



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 By show time, Traffic had been replaced by two acts with less commercial clout, Canadian band the Collectors and rising San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day.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
BALLPARKS © 1996-2001 by Munsey & Suppes
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 was a relative newcomer to the Bay Area music scene.  Although violinist David LaFlamme had earlier been part of the infamous Orkustra with Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, IABD itself was basically put together by infamous manager Matthew Katz, who asked David and Linda Laflamme to join the group he was crafting as a vehicle for 18 year old singer Patty Santos. Relationships with Katz did not go well, and the group split from his management in early 1968, after they felt he was not able to get them either gigs or a major label recording contract. Katz maintained that he owned the group name, and has subsequently spent decades in legal tussles over ownership of materials by IABD, Moby Grape, and even the Jefferson Airplane.   By spring of 1968, the group had started played some gigs at both the Avalon and the Fillmore, but the opening gig for Cream at the Oakland Arena was by far the biggest break the group had received to date – remarkable for a group whose debut album would not appear for another six months or so. 



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.

Cream 10/4/68 Photo: M. Parrish

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
One of the highlights of Wheels of Fire was the extended cover of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” At the Oakland show, this seventeen minute extravaganza found Clapton and Bruce both wailing away with fury but considerably less substance than the recorded version, relying largely on the same riffs played over and over again for much of the song while Bruce injected a lot of vocal scats and Baker attempted to ground the proceedings with jazzy fills. It finally ground to a somewhat anticlimactic halt – not one of their finest quarter hours.

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 next number has been identified on bootlegs as “Passing the Time” and also by the mysterious name “Scattafragus.” It indeed begins with the intro to “Passing the Time” from Wheels of Fire, but that song’s lyrics are gone, replaced by a short bit of very off key scat singing by the three musicians that led into a bit of trio jamming and then into the inevitable Baker drum solo. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they would have been able to deliver the delicate, cello-ornamented lyric section early in the song in a live power trio context. The drummer acquitted himself admirably, playing with both substance and fury before the two guitarists joined in for a very ragged finish. I was enamored of “Toad” at the time, and found this a mysterious replacement, although it remains an interesting artifact.

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 clich├ęs, 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. 

10 comments:

Corry342 said...

Another great post, and its remarkable to see the photos, particularly of the opening acts. You must have one of the earliest performance photos of It's A Beautiful Day. I assume they were a six-piece by then, with Hal Wagenet on guitar?

Do you recall how much of a PA there was beyond the Marshalls for Jack and Eric? I know in early Cream tours the only amplification was their amps, and Baker played without any mics (!).

Its a great detail that Traffic was supposed to open--was that actually advertised?

cryptdev said...

Corry:

They were a six piece, but Hal was pretty much out of the stage lights. I can see the machine head of his guitar in one of the photos.

I'm afraid I don't remember a lot about the PA other than the stacks. I don't believe it was very extensive, but they sure were loud!

All of the pre-show ads I have seen listed Traffic as the opener. I believe it was an eleventh-hour cancellation, which might explain why IABD ended up on the bill.

Bruno Ceriotti said...

Michael another great post! I don't know The Collectors was on the bill, thanks for this new information!. I've update my "IABD Performance List". Traffic canceled the show only because Stevie Winwood was sick. And Corry, yes IABD were a six-piece line-up by then with Hal Wagenet on guitar.

Light Into Ashes said...

It's always fun to hear an eyewitness report about how loud a Cream show was...
Here's another reviewer who was there that night - he was also knocked out (but did not like Beautiful Day's set) -
http://gpatt.customer.netspace.net.au/cream/krejcikoakland.htm

And from the same excellent site, a review of the SBD tape -
http://gpatt.customer.netspace.net.au/cream/finalwest.htm -
which has the interesting comment, "Clapton was playing turned down! There are calls from the audience "to turn it up" - also for recording purposes they were only using one stack each."

And, for listeners out there, the unreleased part of this show is at Wolfgangs Vault -
http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/cream/concerts/oakland-coliseum-arena-october-04-1968.html
(That site also has several It's a Beautiful Day shows at the Fillmore earlier in '68, but not this one...)

Light Into Ashes said...

PS - Your photo clearly shows 2 amp stacks behind Clapton, each one with a mike...don't know if the mikes were for the recording or the PA...

Corry342 said...

Isn't the double amp stack just the opening act's (IABD) equipment in front of the other band's? I'm not that conversant with 60s stage setups.

Corry342 said...

alright, I see what you are talking about now, my mistake. Still, I think its just a huge stack to amplify Eric.

Supposedly Blue Cheer had a stack up to the ceiling (probably exaggerated, but still).

Light Into Ashes said...

Yeah, Clapton's amp stacks are way bigger than Beautiful Day's! "Is this the band that launched a thousand Marshalls?" etc...
(Actually, I think the Who were the first band to get into stacking rows of Marshalls; but they couldn't afford to bring them on US tours early on, so Cream & Hendrix had a much noisier impact on American audiences.)

It's little wonder Baker & Bruce have complained of hearing problems ever since their Cream days...

Now I'll have to listen to that show to see if anybody really does call out, "Turn it up!"

(By the way, didn't the Grateful Dead eventually win the tallest-amp-stack war, circa '74? I don't think they used it to DEAFEN everyone, though...)

cryptdev said...

Thanks Bruno, LIA, and Corry for your comments. In some of the other photos that I didn't post, Bruce's twin Marshalls are also visible. If Clapton and Bruce only used one each, they certainly did the job.

LIA, thanks for the link to the other eyewitness account. Based on his photos, he was a lot closer than we were. After relistening to the SBD, I would have to concur that Clapton, especially, but really the whole band, was off their game that night. Still, I would give them points for experimenting and, given that it was my only chance to see Cream, I'm certainly not complaining in retrospect.

MarkJ said...

As it happened, after Oakland Cream dropped "Passing the Time" from their set list quicker than third-period French in favor of "Toad." However, they retained "Deserted Cities" at least for the next show (University of New Mexico, 5 October 1968) and, as a surviving boot of the Albuquerque gig attests, it came off considerably better than at Oakland. Unfortunately, "Cities" was thereafter ditched and replaced with Jack Bruce's harmonica-horrific, and incredibly boring, "Traintime." Damn shame, that.