Jack Bruce is best known to most people as having been the bassist and vocalist with Cream, the sixties supergroup that imploded after just two and a half years. His solo works are often just as rewarding in listening terms and throughout the decade following Cream’s demise, Bruce released a string of albums that not only helped cement his legendary status, but also show how much broader his talents could be beyond the power trio format. 1969’s ‘Songs For A Tailor’ is a fantastic mix of rock, blues and jazz that belongs in any collection; 1970’s ‘Things We Like’ more than demonstrates Bruce’s affinity with harder jazz influences and 1977’s much overlooked ‘How’s Tricks’ offers a fine collection of rock-oriented songs teaming Jack with drummer Simon Phillips and keyboard player Tony Hymas – both important fixtures in Jeff Beck’s band during the following decade.
Jack’s work from the 1980s seems to gain even less attention retrospectively, but during that decade he was still considered a big enough live draw. Big enough to have had three concerts filmed and recorded by the German Rockpalast show between 1980 and 1990. The shows were released on DVD much later, but the audio remained locked away for what felt like an eternity. Thankfully, this extensive box set – featuring five audio CDs alongside those DVDs – rights that wrong, issuing every note of those three (very different) shows in a seven disc box set.
Featured across CD1&2 and with visuals on the first DVD, the 1980 show is the most “traditional” of the three performances overall. Billed as “Jack Bruce & Friends”, the all-star band features Bruce, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboard player David Sancious and guitarist Clem Clempson (previously of Humble Pie). You’d be hard pressed to find a better session band at that time.
Kicking off with a reasonably rousing rendition of ‘White Room’, Bruce instantly gets the audience on side and the performance here is markedly different from Cream’s general bombast, giving the tune a looser and almost funky feel to allow David Sancious’s keyboards a solid role. The slightly jazzier groove is reinforced by the presence of the legendary Billy Cobham on drums, while Bruce seems much more relaxed than his younger self. Other Cream numbers – ‘Politician’, ‘NSU’ and the classic ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ – are approached with just as much fluidity, with ‘Sunshine’ sounding especially bright. Bruce is in great vocal form on this night and this track especially draws attention to the bluesy edges within his crying voice, while Cobham’s drum fills add extra effortless funk and Sancious plays out with a blanket of very 80s synths that reflect the time in which this recording was made. Both session musicians make invaluable contributions to make this take unique, but never in a way that could be seen as upstaging Jack’s performance. It’s great to get a different perspective on a few favourites but if there’s anything about this two hour show that makes it an essential historical document, it’s the selections from Bruce’s solo work.
Near the beginning of the evening, a trio of tunes from the then current ‘I’ve Always Wanted To Do This’ (Epic Records, 1980) show off a band at the top of their game. The quiet opening of ‘Hit & Run’ shows how Bruce is in a soulful mood. The clean piano sounds and fluid drumming push everything towards funk and adding some fat bass sounds throughout. Surprisingly, Bruce seems entirely comfortable with the commercial style. In many ways – partly due to Rockpalast‘s tendency to give everything a very natural mix for their broadcasts – this outshines its studio counterpart, despite a couple of wobbly backing vocals. The westcoast rock of ‘Running Back’ gives Clempson space for a few bluesy leads and while, decades on, the overall style could perhaps be considered a little dated, everyone puts in some hard yards to make the track almost as sharp as the commercial studio cut. If you’ve never heard this before and fancy the idea of Jack Bruce singing something that sounds like it belongs on a Christopher Cross LP, this’ll give you the most entertaining opportunity. Having the benefit of another change of style and a guest vocal from Cobham, ‘Facelift 318’ shows more of the band’s American tinged pop-rock on a performance that’s a little too quiet in places, but they more than make up for that towards the end of the near two hour set…
For those looking to this show for some less subtle differences, ‘Post War’ (originally from 1971’s ‘Harmony Row’) is almost unrecognisable. What began life almost a decade earlier as a tune that could fairly easily be labelled a Jack Bruce recording, here, the friends step forward and allow their own talents to give the tune a very different flavour. With a jazz drummer and fusion keysman taking the weight, the performance leans further towards a heady mix of jazz and reggae – perhaps having so much more in common with a semi-commercial Zappa tune. Bruce, meanwhile, is in top form again, as his funk bass works for the good of the song throughout. Giving this set another moment where Jack is more than comfortable taking a back seat, the band knocks out a killer version of Cobham’s own ‘X Marks The Spot’, something which should’ve thrilled the attendant crowd, especially with its ferocious interplay between Bruce and Clempson. However, given the lukewarm applause it receives when announced, there’s a feeling that most of the audience isn’t entirely into jazz fusion. That’s their loss: decades on, it’s an essential part of this box set and the visuals on the DVD during this performance are very much a highlight.
With the 1980 gig also including a storming ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’, it’s worth the price of admission even without taking the two later sets into consideration. The good bits are powerful enough to forgive the inclusion of the horrible soul-jazz Stanley Clarke influenced ‘Dancing On Air’ and with regard to the accompanying DVD footage, it’s certainly nice to have. It’s fairly in keeping with other Rockpalast shows of the era, in that the camera work is fairly static and half of the audience have moments where they seem keener on being seen on the telly than actually watching the band. However, unlike a few shows from the late 70s, at least it’s bright – one of the two available Joan Armatrading gigs is so moodily lit, you can’t actually see Joan’s head at times… Perhaps Jack Bruce’s orange jacket and mullet combo should have been given that treatment?
This is a (mostly) great show – you’ll experience Bruce at something approaching full force and it’s a performance that works excellently in the main whether experienced via DVD or audio only option.
The 1983 show is weaker overall, a feeling that’s reinforced by an especially misjudged opening pair of tunes. First up, ‘A Boogie’ assaults the audience with some now dated 80s electro-funk driven by a dual keyboard set up, before ‘Uptown Breakdown’ takes the funkier elements and applies them to a hybrid of westcoast pop and rock. The band is obviously great; retaining David Sancious and featuring him on guitar for a proportion of the show shows he’s a multi-talented guy, but no amount of talent is enough to make this sound like any more than a mere period piece. With Bruce’s voice being a little too low in the mix, there’s very much a feeling that this just isn’t using the power trio format to its best advantage.
Thankfully, a soulful rendition of ‘Green & Blue’ early in the set finds Bruce in fine voice. With a strong vocal backed by hard funky bass runs and a jazzy, clean guitar, the potential in this three man band comes through with ease, before a downbeat ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ shows how Jack’s voice has not only matured, but without having to shout over Baker and Clapton’s bombast, it might just sound better than ever. In keeping with an inconsistent show, though, during ‘The First Time I Met The Blues’ he reverts to oversinging, but nevertheless, the performance can still be seen as a highlight due to some great bass playing throughout and Sancious showing an affinity with some Robert Cray-esque blues guitar. Despite being the weak link both musically and visually, ‘Rockpalast ’83’ is a solid addition thanks to the trio wheeling out a few numbers best associated with Cream to finish. ‘I’m So Glad’ comes across a little differently with some early 80s sheen, but the band are in terrific shape; a nine minute ‘Spoonful’ works everyone to their fullest, but best of all, a really rocky and aggressive ‘NSU’ strips the old Cream staple of its 60s sheen and adds some really distorted and fiery lead guitar work, with Sancious really cutting loose. Clapton had completely forgotten how to do this kind of thing by ’83, obviously, so it’s a pleasure to see and hear Bruce relishing this opportunity with superior talents. Like the 1980 set, the whole show runs to almost two hours, but whereas the previous show flowed well, this one deserves to be cherry-picked. Nevertheless, for the bigger Jack Bruce fan, there’s about an hour’s worth of musical gold to be mined.
Moving forward seven years to the 1990 set, the mood is very different to that of the prior shows. Since Bruce had not long released ‘A Question of Time’ – a rock based affair – you might have expected the accompanying live set to carry a similar energy. Ever the contrarian, Bruce opts for a completely stripped down approach instead: and this show features a solo artist in every sense – one man and his vocals, aided by piano and occasional harmonica.
This means an hour without witnessing Bruce’s powerhouse bass work. An hour without his voice reaching full roar. An hour that’s about as far removed from his live shows with Cream as its possible to get. The question is…does it work? Oh, god, yes. His piano playing is mournful and restrained, in the main, and that means he’s really pulling back most of the time – and that brings a career best in terms of his vocal skills. On familiar material like ‘…Imaginary Western’, he positively aches; on the already soft ‘Can You Follow?’ he’s almost following in the footsteps of Leonard Cohen and even on the less familiar ‘Travelling Child’ (from 1983’s ‘Automatic’), he slips into the guise of a 70s singer-songwriter with so much ease, you’d wonder why he didn’t do this sort of piano crooner thing more often. It’s such an emotive set that the inclusion of Cream’s psychedelic music hall pastiche ‘Doing That Scrapyard Thing’ proves to be somewhat diverting. The original 1969 recording is one of the band’s best, but when aken back to its voice/piano root, it seems kind of…silly. Nevertheless, Bruce approaches it as if it were a masterpiece, even apologising beforehand in case of a forgotten lyric or two.
If you have any doubts about sitting through a show that doesn’t always represent a typical Bruce performance…fear not. This is amazing. It’s beautifully low key, sometimes masterful and so often quite lovely – and sometimes he manages to evoke more than one of those emotions within not much more than a few bars. Given that it’s so minimalist from an audio perspective, this show actually works so much better on the accompanying DVD. Despite Jack’s insistence on shutting himself off from the audience behind a pair of shades for the first twenty minutes or so, and despite a few members of the audience looking a bit…bored, the film of this intimate show is an absolute treasure. At the time of first broadcast, it would’ve been a timely reminder of how much talent Bruce still possessed, a decade on from his heyday. At the time of this box set’s release, it’s a sharp reminder of a huge talent that’s no longer with us. From hours and hours of archived shows, this is one of Rockpalast‘s absolute best.
Despite the 1983 performance being a little under par at times, this box set is an absolute must-have for anyone with even the slightest interest in Jack Bruce’s musical legacy. There was so much more to him than a few well known Cream recordings, occasional ties with Mountain and a couple of good solo records. This is the kind of set that just invites you to go back and (re)discover those albums like ‘Automatic’, ‘How’s Tricks’ and the criminally underrated ‘A Question of Time’. If you purchased the ‘Jack Bruce At Rockpalast‘ DVD back in 2005, the five CDs of audio srill make the upgrade more than worthwhile, but if you still don’t own the DVD content and everything featured on these seven discs is new to you, this should very much be considered a priority purchase.