Cream of the Copy Bands
Tribute bands are all the rage in music clubs and even theaters these days, and it’s not hard to understand why. Not only is it easier to imitate than innovate, but it’s also relatively simple to put a band together to perform the best-known songs from a classic rock band or famous singer, because so many musicians grew up listening to that music and probably practiced such songs while they learned how to play their instruments. Plus, you have a built-in audience among the likely legion of fans of that band who want to hear the music played live, especially if the group itself is no longer around.
Case in point: earlier this month, The Long Run performed their tribute to the Eagles at the Lobero, and SOhO’s schedule has been littered with cover bands focusing on a single artist all year, including two that are slated to show up at the upstairs downtown nightclub this week: the Tom Petty tribute act, Make It Last All Night, performing on April 22, and Music of Cream (MoC), who will play, yes, the music of Cream four days later. But what sets MoC apart from its brethren is its two principal players – drummer Kofi Baker, who is the son of the late Cream drummer Ginger Baker, and guitarist-singer Will Johns, nephew of Cream founder Eric Clapton (by way of Clapton’s wife, Pattie Boyd).
Johns is also the son of producer/engineer Andy Johns and a nephew to Andy’s brother Glyn Johns, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer and sound engineer whose credits include classic albums by the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, The Who, the Beatles, The Clash, and Clapton. So you could say they come by the music honestly, even though neither Baker nor Johns were born until a couple of years after Cream disbanded. “Of course, I was always influenced by Cream and Eric’s music,” Johns said over the phone from a tour stop in Texas earlier this week, recalling that, “Back in the day I used to spend a bit of time at Eric’s house because my parents were a bit unstable, and he encouraged me to play the guitar.” But the truth, he said, is that despite getting first-hand exposure to some of rock’s most classic records, his tastes were as eclectic as any other youngster’s.
“When I was 11 or 12, my first Sony Walkman was loaded with Huey Lewis and the News, the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Bryan Adams’ Reckless as well as The Cream of Eric Clapton album,” he said. “But then I got into the blues and had a huge phase of listening to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson all day every day. In the last 10 years, it’s been all about BB King.” In fact, when Johns isn’t performing the music of Cream – his association with Baker only began five years ago as a 50th anniversary tribute – he’s likely to be working on a blues record of his own (his latest, Bluesdaddy, came out last year) or hitting the road playing pick-up blues with musicians all over the world.
But that’s not such a stretch, considering that Clapton himself cut his teeth with the early Yardbirds, leaving when the band veered from blues rock to radio-friendly pop in order to hook up with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers in the mid-1960s. Even the power trio Cream was originally a space for Clapton to explore sustained blues improvisations, albeit in the growing context of psychedelic music.
That’s the part that also appeals to Johns. “Performing this Cream music really is just sort of like playing big, loud unfettered blues as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s a little bit like being let loose in a padded room and feeling able to just go for it. To me, it’s all just blues anyway.”
The room in question on April 26 is SOhO, where Johns and Baker plus a keyboardist and bassist will perform Cream’s 1967 album Disraeli Gears, the band’s most iconic album and the one that defined the intersection of British blues-rock and psychedelia. After offering the entire strange brew in sequence, the group will also play a second set of additional hits and rarities from Cream, Blind Faith, and Clapton’s solo catalog. “That album is a classic, but really some of those tracks were just psychedelic ramblings from that far out and flamboyant time, and not meant to be serious songs, more like candy for the eyes and for the ears” John said. “But it’s gained so much popularity and sold so many millions of copies, so people read a lot more into it than what’s actually there.”
Indeed, Johns said that while he and Kofi Baker were thrilled to join Clapton (as well as Steve Winwood, Roger Waters, Ronnie Wood, and others) at the tribute show for Ginger Baker at the Hammersmith Odeon in 2020, he imagines his uncle won’t likely be attending any Music of Cream shows. “I think he’d probably prefer to see us being hugely successful doing our own thing, playing our own music, or breaking some musical boundary, just like he did.”