When: Friday, September 23
I've never been a huge fans of tribute bands until, of course, I formed LOVE MINUS ZERO, our homage to the music of Bob Dylan. I prefer a tribute band that doesn't dress up like the guys, do the same stage movements and all that rot. Granted, I couldn't look like Bob Dylan if I tried and proof that no one can really sing like him is blatantly available in the hundreds of folks who have tried. And while there is a lot of truth to his claim that, he writes songs for himself to sing, it still doesn't preclude nearly EVERY musician from giving a stab at something from his prolific songbook on more than one occasion.
Now, being a Dead Head I have played tunes from their rich book for many years as well, and I have seen MANY bands do the Dead tribute thing some of whom do a fine job. The most famous and successful being the DARK STAR ORCHESTRA (too by the book for me), the most unique being DAVID MURRAY'S OCTET of nearly two decades ago playing outside jazz versions of GD material (which I LOVED but which was a one shot deal...find the disc and cherish it). There are a plethora of bands doing a decent job of it while still clinging to their own sound and arrangements to some degree like CUBENSIS from L.A., SPLINTERED SUNLIGHT and many others on the East Coast. But for me I'm looking for a tribute band to not be note-for-note but to add their own personalities and new twists to things. I like a band who brings the Dead's openness and ear for a great song to the stage, like my local DE faves MONTANA WILDAXE and MAD-SWEET PANGS, the later of which RARELY even do GD material but find the spirit of the music part of their own sound. Granted hearing them perform the entire TERRAPIN suite at the 4th Annual Ramjam Festival this past April was pretty inspiring.
I have friends who love the cover bands out on the circuit...not the ghost bands of one or two old members with young guys filling other slots in the line-up, but the bands of no-name musicians playing close to note for note versions of tunes, like BEATLEMANIA run amok. There are tons of these bands playing the casino and neighborhood theater circuits. Zeppelin, Tull, Stones, Who, even Deep Purple cover bands circle the country.
So this brings us to KOFI BAKER'S TRIBUTE TO CREAM. Yes, this is Cream drummer Ginger Baker's drumming son in a power trio playing the music of the band that made his papa famous. I'd not heard a note of theirs before going to the Arcadia Blues Club this past Friday night to see them at the instigation of my brother who had heard them at the OC Blues Fest at Irvine Lake.
The house band, a quartet lead by drummer Bobby Blues was fine if a bit long-winded with a two-hour opening set. The blues tunes were delivered well with guitarist David Malcolm and sublime bassist Howard Deere (who had toured with Guitar Shorty for 40 years) the main focal points for me. Keys and drums were tasty and enjoyable if basic as were the vocals in general. Where they lost me was on the non-blues covers such as Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" both taken decidedly too fast, stripping the essential soulfulness from the performances.
Par for the course, and you may know my aversion to "sit-ins" was a pedestrian harp player and singer who screeched his was through "Hoochie Coochie Man" and a version of "Mustang Sally" that floundered in and out of the arrangement while trying to cover his flat vocals. Owner of the joint, official greeter and father of the drummer, Santa Claus picked things up a bit with decent vocals on "Johnny B. Goode" (though the verses were all inside out), and a well-sung version of "Stormy Monday". But again, why does everyone do these four overplayed tunes with guests? Very odd that the last gig I played with a bluesy guest singer, she chose to sing three of those four tunes with us. The bane of my existence is unimaginative guest performers. Just sayin'.
The band recovered later in the set with a couple of sweet slow blues tunes that hit and held the pocket nicely. Also stellar were a wonderful vocal and slow groove from Howard on Brook Benton's "Rainy Night In Georgia" and a rollicking take on Chuck Berry's "School Days". By far the best tunes of the long set. I doth protest too much though being spoiled by years of catching the cream of the blues school - from John Lee Hooker, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Stevie Ray, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon to Gatemouth Brown, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Big Joe Turner, B.B., Freddy and Albert King. Spoiled.
We also MUST give it up to the Arcadia Blues Club whose very existence in this day and age are a challenge. They have excellent regional and national talent most weekend nights and cheap! Tickets are generally $10-20 and they often offer half price for early arrivals and advance purchases online. Check them out here. Major blues players often are scheduled as well. Name artists such as Johnny Winter, Delbert McClinton, Coco Montoya, Duke Robillard, and Rod Piazza have all graced the stage at the ABC.
In fact, the night after this show young guitar phenom, Michael Williams who is on tour opening for Buddy Guy, was holding a CD release party. Joining him for the evening would be his producer Eddie Kramer who was instrumental in the same role in the studio with Jimi Hendrix.
The two sets by headliners KOFI BAKER'S TRIBUTE TO CREAM were incendiary blasts of material from not only CREAM but his father's other most famous affiliation BLIND FAITH. Guitarist/lead vocalist Fran Banish was the most faithful to the original material of the three, wonderfully recasting Clapton's original leads with finesse and respect while making room for the more modern approaches integrated into the mix by his partners in the trio. Banish's vocals were a nice blend tonally of Clapton's higher reedier sound of the time and Bruce's more fluid and dramatic style. Bassist Ric Fierabacci sang occasional harmonies though I did miss them on a couple of tunes that were left strictly to the lead vocalist.
Fierabacci's approach the the five-string bass was modern in a post-Cream manner, busier than Bruce's and while not as iconoclastic, Ric is a virtuoso. He reinventions are always right on, surprising and fresh, filled with humor and masterful technique. Harmonically and stylistically he has modernized Bruce's innovative style to incorporate many of the fusion concepts that followed in Bruce's wake.
Kofi Baker is a monster drummer. Playing a large kit festooned with double bass drums like his Dad's, he used his father's trademark patterns and post-Elvin freedom as a launching pad for his own post-modern take on the material. While indeed a tribute band, this trio brings Cream's energy and vibe into the new era.
In conversation with Banish between sets he mentioned that the repertoire is fluid depending upon whether Ric is the bassist or not. It is also very obvious that the man knows his E.C. A fan of the mid-70s "comeback" period as am I, his devotion to Clapton's musicality is refreshing in the post-Van Halen age when pyrotechnics often overshadow feel and substance. Like Clapton, his ability to not only shred but to compliment the playing of his fellow players onstage is welcomed heartily by this listener.
Baker formed the band after being turned on by the 2005 Cream reunion shows. "I really wasn't into it as a kid, because it was, you know my dad's music...but after the reunions, I started playing the music for fun and put a band together."
(none of the audio or video below are from the gig reviewed)
above: interview & epk
Kofi has toured playing duets with his father as well as in playing in various groups featuring Jack Bruce, Chris Poland (Megadeth), Steve Waller (Manfred Mann), John Ethridge (Soft Machine), Randy California (Spirit), Steve Marriot (Humble Pie) and Eric Sardinas. I first heard him on the album Abstract Logic with Jonas Hellborg and Shawn Lane in 1994.
Here's what went down at the Arcadia Blues Club:
OUTSIDE WOMAN BLUES
I'M SO GLAD
SLEEPY TIME TIME
I WANT YOU (The Beatles)
DO WHAT YOU LIKE (Blind Faith)
SUNSHINE OF YOUR LOVE
> MANIC DEPRESSION (Jimi Hendrix)
THE WIND CRIES MARY (Jimi Hendrix)
PRESSED RAT & WARTHOG
PRESENCE OF THE LORD (Blind Faith)
DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART
"White Room" began the gig with a nice long, extended section in the middle that let us in on a bit of this band's particular musical imprint. "Outside Woman Blues" was a treat and something I've not heard live much from anyone. For a band that released so few albums worth of material there are so many Cream songs one wants to hear when you see a show like this. "Politician" is always essential to me. This tune really cranks and illustrates so much of what the balls of Cream was all about. Fierabacci's first extended bass solo of the night crowned this version. Many think of the sheer instrumental prowess of the band but their pop smarts always balanced all of the bluster and long solos and rock star largess. This is a concise window into all of those elements.
One of the handful of Cream tunes that has remained in Clapton's repertoire during most of his solo tours has been "Badge" the tune written with George Harrison which appeared on the Goodbye Cream album. This was the only tune of the night where I felt the busy-ness of the playing got in the way of the tune. Could be my great affinity for this tune colored my perspective since the version this band has on YouTube is much more to my liking.
"I'm So Glad" was long and rippin'. Great open jam in the middle. This one roared. "Sleepy Time Time" Fran introduced as the first original blues from Cream. The last two tunes of set one were wonderful treats and nice surprises which I'd never heard anyone play live. Kofi intro'd the first: "Here's a tune by a band of small insects. You might recognize these insects..." and the lit into The Beatles' one real jam-tune, "I Want You" from Abbey Road which featured an extended solo from Banish. They followed this with the first Blind Faith tune of the night "Do What You Like" which was Kofi's father's showpiece with the band. Kofi played a 16+ minute drum solo within the piece featuring poly rhythmic snippets of African, Caribbean, and jazzy extrapolation in a tour de force spotlight.
Set two began with a discussion between the band members before asking the crowd what they wanted to hear a Cream tune or a Hendrix tune...they wound up playing the Cream tune that Hendrix was known to cover, "Sunshine of Your Love" soaring into frenetic take on Jimi's own "Manic Depression". They followed with another Jimi staple, the gorgeously rendered "Wind Cries Mary" with an inventive and jaw-dropping solo from Ric.
Kofi who had been introducing songs but not singing, next said, "I'm going to sing one now. This was written, produced, recorded and mostly played by my Dad. I'd like to do it in honor of him tonight because he's a bastard...and it goes like this..." With that introduction the odd tune, PRESSED RAT & WART HOG rattle about for a few minutes of fun. Fran followed this with a powerful take on Blind Faith's PRESENCE OF THE LORD played more like Clapton played it in the early/mid-70s. This also featured a nice lengthy solo section. Excellent.
DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART roared out of the chute full blazes. Long, ferocious lines snaked around each other en route to a long midsection that featured a few measures of what sounded like Howlin' Wolf's trademark SMOKESTACK LIGHTNIN' riffs before launching back into the smouldering ending of DESERTED CITIES.
The last tune of the night was, of course CROSSROADS done up more succinctly than the expansive Wheels of Fire version. A fitting end to a very fun set. If you have never seen Cream and are a fan, don't miss these guys.
above: Kofi Baker's Tribute to Cream - "Sleepy Time Time"
This next clip, WHITE ROOM is unfortunately audio only but an nice extended version with some killer playing and interesting spacey stuff midway through...
above: Kofi Baker's Tribute to Cream - "White Room"
below: from you drum heads: