Monday, November 10, 2014

Blind Faith plays Hyde Park 1969

The brief lifespan of Blind Faith was, in modern parlance, an epic fail. The band was put together as the first supergroup of rock musicians who’d been successful in other bands, who got together because they liked to play together and were offered enough money to embark on the project.

Blind Faith played its first gig as a free concert in Hyde Park, released one album (with a controversial cover) and then fell apart after its one and only American tour.

One explanation for the failure was that the four individuals were not childhood friends but professionals who’d joined up for a big money gig and when the gig turned sour they had no reason to stick together. The other explanation was that Eric Clapton, as the biggest “name” musician in the group, wanted to distance himself from the excesses of Cream, to just play songs of normal length, while the audiences, especially in the USA, wanted him to recycle Cream and were not interested in listening to, and getting to know, the new material.

Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton were fresh out of Cream, but both had a longer pedigree than that, Stevie Winwood had been a star in the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, and Ric Grech came from Family. I’ve always been curious how Grech got this gig because Family, although possibly successful, had nothing like the reputation of the bands his new band mates had been with.

Blind Faith was supposed to be a democratic unit, a genuine synergistic group, rather than a quartet of genius musicians, and a band where songs would be more important than individual instrumental proficiency. The band would play as an ensemble and not as four soloing virtuosos.

The movie of the Hyde Park show is filmed and put together a little like the famous Rolling Stones free concert at the same venue after the death of Brian Jones, with some scene setting footage and a brief biography of the previous career of each band member to emphasise the supergroup nature of the ensemble. The scenes of the hipsters and scene makers of “swinging London” are almost quaintly curious now, evidence of a bubble of hipness that existed for and was perpetuated by the people who were in it and who generally look as if they are play acting in their self conscious finery and cool attitudes.  It is almost ridiculous.

The band, performing for an audience in excess of 100 000 people, plays all the tracks from the debut album plus the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” a blues announced as “I’d Rather see You Sleeping In The Ground” and a Steve Winwood composition “Means To An End,” that is not on the debut album.

Grech, Baker and Winwood line up at the front of the stage and Clapton stands behind Baker, almost out of the line of sight of the audience, obviously as part of his plan to be a member of the band and not the star guitarist front man. 

Clapton plays an odd hybrid guitar that has a Telecaster body and a Stratocaster neck. His guitar tone, sound and attack is nothing like that heard in his previous bands. For the first time we hear the Clapton guitar sound and more laid back approach to playing that because his trademark from the Seventies onward. He was no longer playing the overdriven Les Paul with its “woman tone” and powerful, intricate and fast solos. From Blind Faith onwards Clapton plays mostly a Stratocaster, with its brighter, cleaner tone and he plays slower and more thoughtfully. For this reason alone, plus Winwood’s keyboards, Blind Faith sounds nothing like Cream. Blind Faith is a soulful band with a loose, bluesy swinging sound. Even Ginger Baker plays more conservatively and conventionally than he did in Cream. Blind Faith certainly do sound like a band that wants to sound like a combo of musicians concentrating on making the songs shine and not being into outrageous virtuosity for the sake of it.

The performance is low key throughout, perhaps because the band had not yet read tested their material and were careful to do well and perhaps a tad nervous to make their debut in front of such a huge crowd. In a way I was reminded of the Cream reunion of 2005 where even that version of Cream no longer had the power and fire of the young band. Clapton and Winwood have also gotten together a few years later to play a series of gigs, similar to the Cream reunion shows, probably to remind us all of the lost opportunities of Blind Faith. I’ve not bothered to listen to that stuff. The two men might have remained mates throughout their careers but this move totally smacked of commercial possibilities rather than a genuine desire for another taste of the old, brief magic. If I did not care much for most of Clapton’s output during the Eighties, I positively disliked Winwood’s solo career.

It was only somewhere in the late Nineties that I first heard the Blind Faith (1969) album in its entirety. When Chris Prior still rules the late night airwaves with Radio 5 he often played songs from the album, like “Sea of Joy” and “Can’t Find My Home” and I knew Clapton’s version of “Presence of the Lord” from the Timepieces: Live in the Seventies album quite well. This meant that I was well acquainted with half of the 6 tracks on the album, and over time I might have heard “Well Alright” and “Had To Cry Today” at least once each. It was only the final track, the long Ginger Baker composed jam “Do What You Like” that was completely new to me.

The first impression of the album is that at least 5 of the 6 tunes are strong compositions played with a good deal of brio and are powerful in their own right. “Sea of Joy” even has a catchy Cream-derived riff and both “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Presence of the Lord” are gospel rock at its best and deserved classics. “Do What You Want To Do” is a real overlong drag of a jam, thankfully positioned at the end of the album so that one can listen to all the good stuff first and then switch off, and illustrates why Baker got so few writing credits with Cream.

It is perhaps a good thing that Blind Faith released only this one studio album. That record and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) represent two once-off recording peaks in Clapton’s career, that otherwise is worthy but with few highlights between 461 Ocean Boulevard and From The Cradle.

Ginger Baker followed an eclectic career path after Blind Faith, Winwood revived Traffic, and then followed a adult pop career of little merit and Ric Grech played with Baker in Airforce, also joined the new Traffic and then essentially followed a career as studio musician and sideman until his death in 1990 at the age of 43.

Blind Faith is used as an example of how greed motivated the construction of a group that could not withstand the commercial, and other, pressures, made up of mature musicians who had no great reason to play together once the going got unnecessarily tough. That is sad. They recorded a corker of a debut album. That is good. We can even watch the video of that first gig to get some kind of understanding of what the fuss was all about. That is excellent.

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