What: The Music of Cream
Where: McPherson Playhouse, 3 Centennial Sq.
When: Friday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $39.50-$52.50 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca
Eric Clapton’s musical tribute to late Cream drummer Ginger Baker was overflowing with legendary guests last week, from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Traffic’s Steve Winwood.
Will Johns was also a participant, at the request of Clapton, Baker’s former bandmate in Cream. Johns jammed on two songs during the Feb. 17 tribute — which took place in England — including a spirited version of the Cream hit, Crossroads. The song is more than a little familiar to Johns, who has spent the last three years playing it in The Music of Cream, his musical tribute to the brief but legendary catalogue created by Clapton, Baker, and bassist Jack Bruce.
Johns was positively beaming during the concert, strumming away on the rhythm guitar parts to a song Rolling Stone magazine ranked No. 3 on its Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time list, while surrounded by Clapton, Nile Rodgers of Chic, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. Fans will probably need to pinch Johns when he’s in Victoria on Friday, for a performance with The Music of Cream at the McPherson Playhouse, because he’s pretty sure it was all a fever dream.
“Just to have the phone ring, for Eric call me up and invite me to come and do that, that was it,” Johns, 46, said. “That was my whole lifetime achievement right there and then. Whether I got to actually do the concert or not, just to be called up and asked if I’d like to do it, that [Eric] thought that I was good enough and that he’d welcome me on stage, that was enough for me.”
Clapton was already well acquainted with Johns, who is the nephew of Pattie Boyd, to whom Clapton was married during the 1980s. But it was his guitar playing ability and familiarity with the Clapton-fronted British blues rock band that made him a perfect fit for the tribute. Adding to the collegial at the event was the presence of fellow participant Kofi Baker, son of Ginger, who plays drums with Johns in The Music of Cream. “That sort of just crystallized everything,” Johns said.
“For me, to get on stage and play with Eric is something that obviously I’ve thought about and dreamed about all my life.”
The Music of Cream began in 2017 with Baker, Johns and bassist Malcolm Bruce, son of Jack Bruce, in the lineup. The latter will not be on the bill at the McPherson Playhouse tomorrow night, but the music will still bear a striking resemblance to the original source material nonetheless, Johns said.
“We definitely don’t dress up like the guys or try and play note for note. It’s kind of a natural thing for us to do it our way, putting our own slant on it. But we also take it a step further.”
The current tour (with bassist Sean McNabb and guitarist Chris Shutters) will see the group play Cream’s most acclaimed album, 1967’s Disraeli Gears, in its entirety, followed by a set of Clapton solo-career classics such as Cocaine, Layla, and Wonderful Tonight, a song he wrote for Boyd in 1977. Johns said the tribute does far better in North America than his native Britain, where Cream is patrolled by what he calls “the blues police.” Their legacy is under no such narrow-minded stewardship in North America, where audiences are happy to hear songs like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love and White Room performed live in 2020.
“If we were money guys, we’d be doing something else,” Johns said with a laugh. “We’re kind of purist musicians, and the path that we’ve taken is not the easy path. But it’s led us to a great place.”
Johns, who was born in London but is now based in Brighton, recalls feeling underwhelmed by his family’s reaction when he told them he was pursuing The Music of Cream as a profession. Though they both write and record their own music, Baker and Johns — who is the son of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones engineer Andy Johns — feel their tribute has its heart in the right place. While Ginger Baker supported Kofi’s decision when he was alive, members of John’s family didn’t extend their blessing, he said.
“I’m not going to mention any names, but some members of my family and my wife’s family suggested that I put down the guitar and get a real job. I’m just so glad that we stuck to our guns. I believed in myself to get to this point. It is a dream come true.”
The dream took on a strange new reality during the recent concert with Clapton, with whom Johns had spent time with during his elementary school years. “He was very important in my upbringing. My mom split from my dad when I was about three so I was raised in single-parent family. I’d get to go and hang out with Pattie and Eric at the house, and that’s where I got into music.”
The full scope of his journey came into focus during the tribute concert last week, Johns said. Shortly after he finished playing the Cream song Sweet Wine, with Clapton, he was overcome with emotion as he walked off stage. He expects shows with The Music of Cream to have new meaning going forward after the experience, Johns admitted. “[Sweet Wine] was the first song on stage in front of an audience that I’d ever played with Eric, and as I walked offstage there’s tears falling out of my eyes because I just couldn't believe it. We’ve all been to been to hell and back and to have this sort of moment, it was just so spiritually, soulfully consummating.”