Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Are the 'Blind' Keeping Faith?

Blind Faith is a spanking-new English rock group which in the next three months will almost surely earn more money than the average Englishman earns in his life. It consists of: Eric Clapton (formerly of the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and, most successfully, Cream), lead guitar and vocals; Steve Winwood (formerly of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic), lead vocals, organs, piano and guitar; Ric Grech (formerly of the Family), bass and electric violin; and Ginger Baker (formerly of the Graham Bond Organization and Cream), drums.

The group's first album, on Atlantic, has not yet been released. Its first--and current--United States tour, scheduled for about 20 stops at such musical shrines as the Minneapolis Sports Center, will almost certainly gross over a million dollars. Reportedly, the Blind Faith organization will get about two-thirds of the final sum.

This immense pre-success is based on the reputation of Cream, the most spectacular rock record and concert draw of 1968. On July 12, the group made their American debut before a near-capacity audience of worshipful ex-Cream fans at Madison Square Garden. They were preceded by an English blues-rock trio, Free, and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, an excellent but misused white soul-gospel group. The show was a disaster.

This does not mean that the audience--which was adolescent, long-haired, raucous and mobile--was at all displeased with its assembled heroes. Its only beef, a legitimate one, was that Blind Faith played for less than an hour, despite almost riotous appeals for more. But then, those kids were presold. Although none of the principals seems to believe it, the kids would not have been turned off by a better presentation. They might even have preferred it.

Any musical event witnessed by almost 20,000 people is likely to be more spectacle than concert, and that is no cause for complaint. But it is fair to ask what constitutes successful spectacle. In rock the key elements are high recognition and good vibrations. High recognition is different from detailed visibility, impossible even in medium-sized halls like the Fillmore East, and articulated sound, always rare and in some cases antithetical to the true intent of the music. The vibes are harder to pin down. Because of rock's obsessive sense of its own community, a good rock audience is always more than just "live": it hums, squirms, shouts, brims with life, with sympathetic waves. At Blind Faith's evening, however, the vibrations were worthy only of St. Vitus's dance.

Needless to say, real dancing was out of the question. Onlookers did jockey for vantage in the aisles but were always turned back by implacable ushers and city policemen. (Structured space and uniformed aliens do not help the vibes.) The stage, located in the center of the Garden, revolved like a Lazy Susan once every three or four minutes, and so did the equipment. This caused acute acoustic and visual problems in the press's $6.50 seats--performers were hidden behind their amplifiers for about 200 degrees of the circle, and sound fluctuated drastically as the amplifiers turned. Maybe those in the higher seats could see over the equipment and listen to auxiliary speakers, but the guards did not permit any investigation.

The stage setup was necessary because the white rock virtuoso must create an illusion of an oblivious rapport between himself and his instrument (or mike) that is only possible to project while facing an audience on some sort of proscenium. James Brown and Aretha Franklin have proved that good music is possible at Madison Square Garden, but only because the soul tradition is so frankly theatrical: both artists felt free to roam a large, stationary platform, acknowledging the whole audience in the actual space of the arena rather than hunching ecstatically over some machine. But given the conditions, the Blind Faith promoters could have imitated this summer's concerts in the Singer Bowl, where a proscenium is created by closing one end of the stadium.

Failing that financial sacrifice, they could have been more careful with acoustics. Blind Faith's mystique, like that of Cream, is one of musicianship. Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker are regarded by their fans as the masters of their respective instruments. Indeed, the one Clapton solo that was clearly audible was a marvel of sanity amid the muddle, a forceful, eclectic blues statement that owed something in mood and definition to B.B. King but showed none of King's resignation. Unfortunately, it was impossible to hear anything else so good.

Cream became an instrumental band partly because neither Clapton nor bassist Jack Bruce was an effective lead vocalist. There is no such problem with Winwood, who is possessed of what may be the strongest white blues voice in the world. Although he is an excellent musician, Winwood has always shown a preference for tight arrangements, and Blind Faith reflects this preference to its own benefit: Clapton is superb on short solos but has never learned how to control the long ones.

In general, however, what could be heard of the music was disappointing. Clapton is no lead singer, but his unique vocal style would be useful on harmonies; at the Garden, there were almost none. Neither Winwood's keyboard work not his vocals showed the kind of intelligence that ideally accompanies such immense raw talent. Commendably, the group tried to showcase the relatively unknown Grech with solos on bass and violin, but neither fully justified his presence. As for Ginger Baker--well, the drum solo which climaxed the set certainly pleased his fans, who had been clamoring for one sine the set began, but it was heavy-handed as usual and, as usual, drew the loudest applause when it was nothing more than a demonstration of how loud and fast Ginger can wield the sticks.

Without doubt, the music will be better on record, infinitely better, and once the record is out one recognition problem, the problem of identifying with badly projected new material, will be minimized. The problem of how to identify with a performer who can only be seen for two minutes at a time is more difficult. Its solution will require a diminution of greed, not only by the group's management but by the musicians themselves, who know by now what the supergroup scene involves.

Rock as performed by Blind Faith might be what rock at its best should be: an amalgam of ritualistic generational violence--Baker beating hell out of his drums, Grech thumping one note on the bass--and excellent music--Winwood singing, Clapton playing, Baker and Grech superb in the background. But it won't be, at least not on this tour. Everyone will make lots of money, Grech will become a star, kids will idolize them. But such a slipshod sense of responsibility will eventually take its toll, if not on Blind Faith at first,t hen on all of rock. And when rock goes, Blind Faith goes too.

New York Times, July 20, 1969