The tunes where there’s plenty gold for a life’s treasury: classic shows from rock polymath boxed for aural and visual relish.
The only predictable aspect of Jack Bruce’s solo career was his albums’ stylistic unpredictability – and, of course, quality. He was also always bold in terms of having no reservations about bringing any experiment to the stage and didn’t rely on crowd favorites or do anything the audience may have expected of him. These three shows – two from the same era, yet drastically different, and one from a later period – are terrific testament to Jack’s talents, the two previously DVDs, available earlier, and five CDs, with the same material prepared for focused listening, representing various facets of Bruce’s multidimensional oeuvre only to stress how solidly liberal it could be beyond the studio walls.
The 1980 concert is the most perfect amalgamation of Bruce’s rock and jazz leanings, with arguably the best band he ever had where “friends” – Clem Clempson on guitar, Billy Cobham on drums and David Sancious on keyboards – wasn’t simply an ensemble moniker but meant a real spiritual loop, and the players lay out a nicely nuanced extravaganza without shying away from melodic bluster. They go for jugular from the onset, once “White Room” has posited that no punch should be pulled in terms of repertoire and performance, initial roughness adding to its funky charm, yet deep cuts such as “Post War” reveal the quartet’s telepathic looseness. As a result, Jack’s closed eyes signal a descent into a nervous, ever-shifting groove, while the American half of the group clearly enjoys the weird rhythmic patterns and Clem adds a few licks of “Spoonful” to his solo to tease the audience and give them those blues as an encore with Graham Parker sharing the fun.
The foursome effortlessly soar ‘n’ sweat on a fusion expanse of Cobham’s “X Marks The Spot” and frolic ‘n’ roll on “Livin’ Without Ja” but, grounded by backing singers, “Dancing On Air” feels rather pedestrian and “Sunshine Of Your Love” too fuzzy, unlike “Politician” whose frantic edge is sharpened to the full, with dueling axes shredding away. Still, if operatic parts in the glammed-up “Hit And Run” conceal the real power of the bassist’s vocals, it’s the fretless-led mesmeric stampede in “Bird Alone” – another piece from the then-unreleased, albeit majorly represented here, “I’ve Always Wanted To Do This” album – and the dramatic romance of “Theme For An Imaginary Western” which would see Bruce at the grand piano and Clempson giving his six strings to Sancious to pick up the four-string instrument Clem used on “Facelift 318” and serve up a consise, yet impressive, improv, that provide a purely spiritual experience. Not for nothing the two gems reappear on the other concerts included in this box set, “Theme” spellbinding without a band and “Bird” flying heavy with the group slimmed down to a trio.
The 1990 recital couldn’t be more unlike the one which heralded the previous decade, as there’s no accompanists at all, Jack looking very vulnerable and lonesome – left on his own at a grand piano, eyes half-hidden behind dark glasses, with “One” a quintessential breezy ballad for such a setting. Nevertheless, the veteran’s classical training shines through the initial gloom from the first runs of “Outsiders” that flow into the equally welcoming and alienating “Can You Follow” before taking the yet-unissued take on Eddie Boyd’s “Third Degree” to a steadier blues ground. When his ivories delve into barrelhouse, the chamber layer is still there to propel “Pieces Of Mind” beyond the pale or drive “Flying” from the just-released “A Question Of Time” towards tuneful limbo and “Tickets To Waterfall” towards strange catharsis, only to have the graciously light “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” bring a smile on everyone’s face.
While “Weird Of Hermiston” would also anticipate the cold distillation of the artist’s method on “Monkjack” – the least rock-oriented record in his canon – and “Travelling Child” would enliven the dry "Automatic" template by accentuating this song’s link to a certain McCartney cut, the dusting off of “Golden Days” is emotionally leveled, if marvelously warm. Yet the genuine, jovial magnificence rests not with solemn songs but with an a cappella, laced with harmonica, delivery of “Traintime” – rendered as countrified rap – and the playful operatics of “The Best Is Still To Come” which would officially see the light of day much later. It’s the latter track, though, that lets fresh air in the 1983 show, a concert shaped by a rather unusual setup: an unconventional trio where, once Clempson was gone and the aforementioned synth-laden album was out, Bruce and Sancious shared the keyboards load and Bruce Gary kept the rhythm simple ‘n’ steady until a hat-trick of staples by another three-piece, CREAM, appeared at the close of it all, after a sweep through two thirds of the new record.
There’s newfangled frivolity to “I’m So Glad” – fantastic even on a physical level – yet, getting aloof from the off, the concert opens with “E. Boogie” that’s far removed from the fervent, with Jack jiving and jumping, cajun of “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” in the genre stakes, as his languid wail is contrasted with David’s vocodered lines, but “Uptown Breakdown” has pomp and circumstance surrendered in favor of a more motorik route. These cuts’ refrains are echoed in the relaxed return to the snowball momentum of “Keep It Down” – something so dissimilar to “Make Love (Part II)” whose cod reggae could feel almost incongruous in the absence of guitars had it not been so charming. Thankfully, the stringed tools appear on “Green & Blue” to send the airy trio arrangement the POLICE way and demonstrate the band’s amazing technique, an aspect completely lost in the shallow – and increasingly crazy, thanks to Bruce the drummer – excitement of “The Swarm” which is becoming electrifyingly natural in “First Time I Met The Blues” when all the sonic elements fall into their proper place.
Surprises abound, this box set captures Jack in his prime, reigning supreme, although not flawlessly, at the time of his music going out of fashion. A priceless document.