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'The 50th Birthday Concerts' was Jack Bruce's party celebrating his long career with a wide menu of styles and a cast of all-stars.

Music DVD Review: Jack Bruce – ‘Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts’

Jack Bruce RockpalastOn October 25, 2014, the legendary Jack Bruce left us, a victim of liver disease. Of course, he’s best remembered for his tenure as bassist, lead vocalist, and songwriter for the immortal Cream. His later career is less familiar, including his stint working with Leslie West in another hard-driving trio consisting of West, Bruce, and Laing. Before the glory days, Bruce had come up the ranks working with the likes of Alexis Korner, John Mayall, and Manfred Mann. After the ’60s, Bruce remained musically active, but he was never again to get the public acclaim he had once enjoyed, at least in the States. In Europe, and Germany in particular, it was a different story, as evidenced by the new audio and video release Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts.

On November 2 and 3, 1993 at the E-Werk in Cologne, John Symon Asher (aka Jack Bruce) threw a late 50th birthday party for himself by inviting a host of musical friends to join him onstage. These included drummers Ginger Baker and Simon Phillips, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, guitarists Gary Moore and Clem Clempson, pianists Bernie Worrell and Gary Husband, bassist François Garny, and singer Maggie Reilly.

In many ways, the concerts were an opportunity for Bruce to host a number of reunions. After all, his career really began in 1962 when he worked in Blues Incorporated and its successor, the Graham Bond Organization with both Heckstall-Smith and his longtime bandmate and sparring partner, Ginger Baker. Bruce played with Phillips in 1977; as a session player for Gary Moore around the same time; and, in 1980, Clempson was a member of “Jack Bruce and Friends.” Altogether, the wide range of these performers and the breadth of Bruce’s musical interests resulted in a varied and lengthy (235 minutes) two-disc concert set. (A shorter audio CD version, Cities of the Heart, came out in 1994 in Germany.)

To begin what Bruce called an “epic journey,” The 50th Birthday Concerts opens with acoustic instrumentals including Bruce playing cello on “Improvisation on Minuet No.1” and piano on “FM.” He continues on solo piano but also sings poetic lyrics on the arty ballad, “Can You Follow.” Husband joins Bruce on “Running Thro’ Our Hands” and “Childsong” as the two keyboardists and vocalists add synthesizer sounds to the mix.

Then, Bruce picks up his bass and is joined by Baker and his “mentor and musical Dad” Heckstall-Smith for the bebop instrumental jams “The Tube,” “Over The Cliff,” and “Statues,” the latter two drawn from Bruce’s second solo album, 1970’s Things We Like. Yes, there’s plenty of space for ole Ginger to flash, splash, rumble, and crash. More of this to come.

Then guitarist Clempson joins the ensemble and the quartet gets down with the blues in “First Time I Met The Blues.” R&B singer and Hammond organist Bernie Koppell adds his funky soul to the sophisticated arrangement of “Smiles and Grins,” on which Husband switches over to the drum kit. Then Bruce dedicates “Bird Alone” to Charlie Parker, telling us the song was written by Pete Brown, Bruce’s collaborator on many a hit for Cream. With this number, we’re finally hearing what can be fairly described as a rock concert with a progressive bent, as in Cream meets King Crimson.

The band expands further when a horn section and drummer Simon Phillips join the revolving cast on “Neighbor, Neighbor,” the Albert King/Cream classic “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and “Boston Ball Game 1967.” (“Neighbor, Neighbor” goes way back as it appeared on the Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 The Sound of ’65.) The show becomes mellow again when singer Maggie Reilly duets with Bruce on the lovely “Ships in the Night” before she adds some gospel belting on the rather plodding Stax-flavored “Willpower.”

Jack Bruce
Bruce playing a fretless Warwick Thumb bass guitar at the Jazzfestival in Frankfurt, Germany on 28 October 2006. Photo by Christian Sahm

The 19 songs on Disc One go out with the jaunty, jumping “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” a splendid rendition of “Theme From An Imaginary Western” (which Mountain made famous at Woodstock), and one more slow ballad, “Golden Days.”

Cream fans may prefer to start with Disc Two. It opens with an acoustic rendition of “As You Said.” After a Baker drum solo, later we also get the first of two new versions of “NSU,” “Sitting On The Top Of The World,” “Politician,” “White Room,” and a full brass band version of “Sunshine Of Your Love.” Bruce’s main guest here is singer and percussionist Peter Brown, co-writer of both “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love.”

Along the way, we get other ditties such as an apparently unrehearsed “Rope Ladder To The Moon” from Bruce’s first and most successful solo album, 1969’s Songs for a Tailor, an album that had featured Heckstall-Smith on sax. (Other choices from that album included “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” and “Boston Ball Game 1967.”) But, wait, the best is yet to come!

When guitarist Gary Moore joins the mix, the energy really kicks in on the second rendition of “Life on Earth” and very hot versions of another look back at the Cream songbook, with seriously burning readings of “NSU,” “Sitting On The Top Of The World,” “Politician,” “Spoonful,” and “White Room.” Can two-thirds of Cream plus Moore outdo what the group with Eric Clapton laid down all those years ago? In my mind, the answer is yes. The musicianship is more subtle, the timing more precise. No wonder that in the aftermath of this gig, Bruce, Baker, and Moore temporarily formed a new power trio, BBM. Now, there’s an element of poignancy as both Bruce and Moore are no longer with us.

Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts is available in several editions including a Special Edition DVD/CD, CD/DVD Digipack, DVD, and Digital Formats. The double DVD digi comes with a 12-page booklet, new liner notes and previously unreleased photos. I can’t attest to their glories as my review copy had just the two DVDs in a simple cardboard package. I’m not complaining. While it took too long for this version of Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts to see the light of day, this release is a worthy tribute to the recently departed Scottish bard. Whether you get it in cardboard, plastic, or as a download, this is a concert that might not please you in its entirety, but there are sections for every music lover of any genre.

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