“The Music of Cream: 50th Anniversary World Tour” celebrates the music of one of rock’s first power trios via the group’s next generation.
“It’s going over really well, I think,” said guitarist Will Johns, Eric Clapton’s nephew (by marriage), who is joined by drummer Kofi Baker, son of Ginger Baker; and bassist Malcolm Bruce, son of Jack Bruce. “We’ve got a really nice range of age groups coming to the shows and a lot of young guitar players, as well, which is really great to see. Every young guitar player that I know plays that riff from ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ ”
After gigs this month at BergenPAC in Englewood and the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, they will wrap up their New Jersey run with an Oct. 23 show at Red Bank’s famed Count Basie Center for the Arts.
Johns, an avid fisherman, was working on fishing vessels in the English Channel when he got the call from his buddy Malcolm, asking him to stop out at a show he and Baker were doing.
“A few years ago — I’d say 2013, just after I lost my dad (record producer Andy Johns) — I was in a pretty sad place and the phone rang, and it was Malcolm Bruce. He phoned to say that he was coming to England on tour with Kofi and a great guitarist that they were playing with at the time named Godfrey Townsend, and they were going to be doing a show fairly near to where I live. And he invited me to come sit in.
“At the time I was really flattered that he thought that I could do something like that. So I went along to the show and had a jam with the guys and things progressed kind of slowly from that point. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride; we had a tour of England but there were visa complications for Kofi so Malcolm and I ended up doing a couple of runs in the U.K. with another drummer. Then it all kind of came together last year with our new manager who put this particular project together, and we toured Australia and New Zealand last year.”
Being the nephew of Clapton, does Johns feel any additional pressure? And has he received any help from old Slowhand, over the years?
“I started out hitting the drums downstairs at my Uncle Eric’s house at stupid o’clock in the morning and I think I pissed him off a time or two, and he’d come down at like 6 in the morning and say, ‘What the fuck are you doing? I’m trying to sleep. What are you learning and why don’t you learn a proper instrument?’ (laughs) I don’t think he meant the didgeridoo. Which, by the way, all the time we were on tour in Australia I don’t think I saw anyone playing a didgeridoo. I didn’t see a kangaroo, either.
“He actually showed me the opening part of ‘Crossroads’ as a young guitarist and once I figured that out, I went back to him and said, ‘Okay, I’ve got that bit.’ He nixed it and that was when he put me on the path of, ‘You’ve got to figure that bit out for yourself.’ A little tough love, but I guess it went a long way because here we are.
“I think I may have felt some pressure before, but I’ve been doing it for quite a while now and it seems I’ve come to terms with that aspect of it. It’s a big pair of boots to fill but I don’t think that we as a band are necessarily trying to emulate or copy what’s been done before. It’s just more of an honoring of it and tipping our hat to it while still retaining our own musicianship and sense of personality, if that makes sense. We’re not wearing the clothes of the era or using big Marshall stacks of amps to recreate that sound. However, Gibson Custom Shops have been very, very generous and sent me out a very beautiful cherry ES-355 to play on the tour, and of course that’s the guitar that Eric used at the farewell concert back in November of 1968.”
Unlike many other classic acts these days, this lineup gives those who come to the show more than their money’s worth.
“You know, it’s a little bit elasticated where we can stretch it out or pull it back … there’s a lot of jams in the show but right now it’s running about two and a half hours. Sometimes it depends on what the venue requires … sometimes we have a break and sometimes we just run all the way through. Sometimes it’s a bit long to concentrate and be hit over the head with loud guitar, bass and drums.
“Kofi is doing ‘Toad,’ which features a drum solo that can be anywhere from 12 minutes to 20 minutes depending on the night — and to be honest, there hasn’t been a night where after he plays his drum solo that he hasn’t pretty much gotten a standing ovation.”
Johns reiterated the band’s pleasure with the diversity of the audiences.
“I think we’ve probably got one of the broadest age ranges of interest. Younger people are coming in with their grandparents, and they’re obviously just starting out, wanting to see where the riffs have come from.”
The show ios a multimedia experience. “We’ve got an incredible light show,” said Johns. “Once again, it tips its hat to the lighting effects of the time: the oil lamp and the psychedelia, but then it also has modern, contemporary aspects, too. Included in that is footage and stories from our experiences and our upbringing with our respective parents and my uncle. Combined with that we cover a lot of the Cream material and the well-known songs, so there’s some set pieces and also a lot of jam and free form. Both Kofi and Malcolm have what I might call a genetic bond, musically. It’s almost spiritual and bordering on telepathic, and as a blues guitarist, and somewhat of a simpleton, sometimes for me that can be a bit of a challenge (laughs). We turn it up and I’d like to think that we do our best to honor the music.”
For more about the project, visit musicofcream.com.
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