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Cream rises to the occasion

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of Cream in some editions of yesterday's Living/Arts section misidentified the band's drummer. Ginger Baker is the drummer of Cream.)

NEW YORK -- It is the mother of all reunions. Cream -- the original supergroup, seminal power trio, and egomaniacal virtuosos who in a mere two years laid the foundation for heavy rock, jam bands, and celebrity feuds -- are back together for at least a few fleeting moments. Ironically, there was little heaviness, jamming, or feuding last night at Madison Square Garden during the opening show of Cream's three-night stand here -- the only concerts the band has scheduled in the United States.

The only nod to psychedelia was an oozing rainbow backsplash, against which drummer Ginger Baker sat ramrod straight, peeling off taut rhythms with marvelous efficiency. Eric Clapton, ever the laid-back guitar god, seared his instrument to perfection. Bassist Jack Bruce, the evening's revelation, crisscrossed his bandmates' sensible paths with mischief and daring.

Nearly four decades after the British trio's brief, illustrious run in the late '60s, however, mastery never quite translated to synergy, and supreme balance trumped magic and chaos every time.

But what balance. This mix was so democratic one imagines that lawyers were involved. It was clear from the start of Cream's 20-song set -- a glistening, streamlined version of the Skip James gem ''I'm So Glad" -- that the signature three-headed assault of the band's early days was a thing of the past. In short order ''Spoonful," which stretched out graciously but never wandered too far or too long from center, confirmed Cream's shift into the mature musician's comfort zone -- forsaking the wild fires of youth for clean lines and predictable plots.

''Crossroads," gilded with the solo Clapton gleam, was pared down to three minutes. The classic-rock radio staples ''White Room" and ''Sunshine of Your Love" promised great peaks but were reined in soon after the ascent began. Again during ''Sweet Wine," the elusive riveting groove emerged only to disappear before lift-off, the victim of careful scheduling.

Oddities like Baker's spoken-word piece ''Pressed Rat & Warthog" and the skewed blues ''Politician" stood out all the more for their distinctive textures. And a show-stealing version of ''Rollin' and Tumblin' " -- a careening mess of Bruce's harmonica, Clapton's slide guitar, and Baker's snapping snare -- was a too-fleeting foil to the night's wealth of tasteful restraint.

It's worth noting that with the exception of a brief set at the band's 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clapton, Bruce, and Baker hadn't played together in 37 years until this past May, when Cream did four dates at London's Royal Albert Hall. Everybody got what they've candidly revealed they came for -- Clapton the collaborative spark, Bruce and Baker the paycheck, and the audience a massive jolt of quality nostalgia -- which inspired the group to book the New York shows.

One wonders what might happen if Cream continues on as a trio, and makes an investment in unearthing the magic as well as relearning the songs.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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