Sunday, March 29, 2009
WHEELS OF FIRE
Eric, Jack and Ginger, aided and abetted by Felix Pappalardi, went all out and unleashed this sprawling double set in the summer of 1968. The first record was comprised of nine new studio cuts while the second showcased the mighty skills of the trio, captured live at Winterland in San Francisco earlier that year.
"Wheels of Fire" is the band's apotheosis, the culmination of two years of touring and recording that finally saw them realize a balance between lengthy live improvisation and crafting their own material in a studio environment. Their previous two albums had been done fairly quickly, with a minimal amount of takes, live off the floor without a lot of overdubbing. Easing into the sessions for this record, with Pappalardi as producer and de facto fourth member, arrangements expanded to allow for additional instruments. For the most part, the songs were first rate. "White Room" crackles with pent up intensity from the brooding intro to the whip crack snare shot that unleashes the verses. Clapton's memorable solo through the fade is the icing on the cake.
Blues structures still figure prominently both in their own compositions ("Politician") and the covers ("Sitting on Top of the World", "Born Under a Bad Sign"). For me, one of the highlights is "Deserted Cities of the Heart" which really stands out in terms of dynamics and the use of atmospheric strings. "As You Said" is another construction along these lines. Had Bruce and Baker not hated each other, this may have been an interesting direction to pursue had they made another proper full length album.
Baker's eccentric "Pressed Rat and Warthog" is bizarre, but worth at least one spin.
Virtuosity makes for great listening on side three with the classic rendition of "Crossroads" (one of EC's signature solos) and a mind bending sixteen minutes of "Spoonful". It is here that you have a testament to how tuned in to each other they were as they seem to all be playing solos simultaneously, yet never stray from the main motif and remain tight. Freeform jazz meets the blues. Those that caught them in their prime say that the live recordings didn't do them justice.
Bigger isn't always better, as some listeners might find nearly 20 minutes of Ginger Baker soloing a bit excessive, but overall this was an incredibly successful release, being the first rock double album to go platinum. In the UK, the economy minded buyer was presented with "In the Studio" and "Live at the Fillmore", sold separately. Still, it holds up as an excellent document of three phenomenal players at their peak.
Cream called it a day and gave their farewell concert just months later.