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Marching through history at the finale of Cream's spiritual home

It's all about the context.

Context is everything, both generally speaking and in almost every situation we encounter on a daily basis. Few things have the power to so drastically alter perceptions and reality as the context of any given moment.

Saturday 17 October, Cream in Liverpool began a trio of finale events in celebration of the hallowed venue and spiritual home, Nation, and delivered an almost unique and surreal clubbing experience for what was the most hyped club night I've ever known. The context was perhaps the most perfect storm possible for a club night in these circumstances. Cream - a clubbing influence unparalleled in terms of its impact on DJ success, the industry as a whole and mainly, those fans who have witnessed the magic inside Nation - isn't going anywhere soon, but Nation is due to be razed and redeveloped next year. A new venue is planned, but everyone knew, it was time to say goodbye and my just how did people want to say goodbye, emphasising the enormous and widespread reach of those who felt that they really could not miss this.

The 3 events planned mixed old and new in a thankfully sentimental ode to what had passed, as well as pleasing the current generation of Cream punters. At this point the finale script read our collective minds and produced what can only be described as a classic Cream lineup for Saturday 17th October, nodding the head to early house dons like Roger Sanchez and Jeremy Healy, legendary acts like K-Klass and Jon Pleased Wimmin, Cream regulars like Pete Tong and Darren Emerson, and of course, the legendary residents Paul Oakenfold and Seb Fontaine. It was immediately obvious to everyone what had been put together here and an insatiable hype like I've never seen before gathered speed. Without any command or direction, it was apparent this just had to be a night for classic tracks, what else could it be and not like other retro events, which usually feel a bit naff and cheesy, this was different, this just had to be an anthology of classic cream music.

Sense of community

The collective buzz pre-event reminded me of clubbing days gone by when Pete Tong's Essential Selection or maybe a new compilation CD served as the common bond between strangers on the dancefloor. Electronic music is still affecting people's lives the same way it did 30 years ago, of that I have no doubt, but the mass proliferation of music, streams, radio shows and the culture as a whole, inevitably has lead to a disconnection somewhat between who you find yourself dancing next to at an event. In other words, in Oakey's courtyard days at Cream, we were all listening to the same mixes and releases outside the club, let alone on the dance floor, so I suppose it has a nostalgic sense of innocence compared to now. Just cranking the context button up a bit further, you have to realise just how charged every DJ was for this gig, it was tangible to see and hear the energy and excitement every artist had to be present and play. It's fair to say that some are really not the big names they used to be, which in itself would have magnified the moment and I'm sure some realised this was their biggest gig for some time and possibly last real properly huge gig they might ever play……..add that factor to our bubbling context.

Before I describe some of the event itself, I'd like to use myself as an example of why this whole thing was just so special. I've been clubbing for 18 years, I reckon I've seen a thing or two along the way… I've also felt compelled to write a club review for the first time in several years, despite it once being my trade. In short, Cream totally transformed my life when I first started clubbing and regularly attended there in the late 90s as a local lad, my life since is irrelevant but I'm one of 1000s of people who really were part of something unbelievably special at the time, even within the dance world, and as a result place great emotional significance on just how brilliant it was.

Time travel

The single most important thing to appreciate about this event was that we all timewarped back to 98 (or 94 or 2001), imagine being able to do that for a night, with the same location, the same artists, the same music (and the best of it), the same crowd - whether you knew them or not. It just felt the same. There was no unattractive submission to modern traits; no CO2, pretty much no lights and the LED screen was 100% traditional with simply a cream logo and the artist name. It doesn't matter where you first felt the claw of being part of the clubbing community; whether you were there at the beginning in Chicago's Warehouse or New York's Paradise Garage or whether you're a techno kid from Berlin who loved Tresor or a UK prog head who loved Renaissance, the past is the past and none of these iconic venues even exist now, sadly neither do some of the iconic DJs who appeared there. It's not about making comparisons of greatness, merely that for those of us who were there before and attended on Saturday 17th, this was our Larry Levan one more time at the Garage or Frankie in the Warehouse, an absolute surreal leap through time and for 8 hours, everything was just how it used to be.

Now we're clear about the context, which is everything remember, how could the event itself be anything but a slam dunk. Upon arrival I enjoyed hearing some turn of the millennium era proggy classics like Standing by Silvio Ecomo and Sparc by Futureshock, then saw Timo Maas pick out some of the tracks that made him huge around the same time, notably his own Der Schieber and Ubik (The Dance). Throughout the night I briefly popped my head into the Annexe, which as the original room of the club when it opened in 1992, offered the closest leap back to those post-rave and early club days, with piano house anthems like Passion by Gat Decor played by Alistair Whitehead and K-Klass playing their own Rhythm is a Mystery and Let Me Show You Love, outright classics like Is there anybody out there by Bassheads (played by Jeremy Healy) and Back to Love by the Brand New Heavies (Whitehead again) and plenty of bangers too; Graeme Park played Higher State of Consciousness by Josh Wink.

The Courtyard

No night like this could ever only be about one single thing but there was a tangible throb of excitement and expectation about the courtyard and the return of Seb and Oakey. It isn't the main room of the club, by name or in any sense, nor was it even a room at all originally, in fact, as the name suggests, it was merely a courtyard area, open to the elements and not even used at all until a few years after the club first opened. By 1995 it was being used as a chill out, under the stars, with music pumped in from the main room; I dare say a fair few lifetime friendships were inaugurated during this time. The first night of the courtyard proper, now equipped with booth and legendary Phazon sound system, was 30th March 1996, with who else but Sasha in town for the Grand Opening and a landmark moment when Cream were granted their first late licence by Liverpool City Council.

It is, however, the Oakenfold era that really cemented this room's mythical status. After a year of his residency in the Annexe - he played 40 out of 52 weeks - Oakey decamped to that sauna of a room we all know and love and the resulting outcome thrust both parts of the equation to global stardom. It was a perfect storm, Oakenfold at the peak of his powers, trailblazing the embryonic stage of the superstar DJ era to come, with his blend of trance and melody and prog and beats capturing the mood of the scene at the time. Moreover, the power that such a humble space could produce that level of electric atmosphere, with sweat literally dripping down the walls and a charged energy more akin to a football match than a club, only served to make it all just feel something unique. It was and we all knew it at the time. We also knew full well, both then and since, that you can't relive past memories.

The final perfect storm

In that room on that night though, we did relive the past, we retraced well danced steps and took up our places where we always used to, for those who hadn't been clubbing for a while, it all flowed back naturally; for those of us who've lost touch with the dance floor, we unashamedly renewed our vows. Seb Fontaine ripped through some of his power anthems like 5:55 by Durango, Coming on Strong by Signum and Lizard by Mauro Picotto, there were some unavoidable classics like Cafe Del Mar, Born Slippy and Silence, and then there were a few real peaks that threatened to take the room open air again; Fixation, Synaesthesia, Learning to Fly and of course, his signature track Fiji to end. By now, the temperature in the courtyard was almost unbearable, you just never quite remember how hot it actually gets!

Then as Seb introduced Oakey as Summersault by Taste Xperience (what else!) floated into the room… you wondered who was writing the script here. He introduced his set as “classic, classic, classic”, thanks in no small part to welcoming suggestions from fans pre-event, and it didn't disappoint, encompassing the best of the glory days from his Cream residency, featuring tracks by Mansun, Amoeba Assassin, Binary Finary, The Space Brothers, Brainbug, Chakra, Ascension and some perfectly timed self-indulgent moments thanks to cuts from Grace and Planet Perfecto. There were plenty of vocals, loads of laser reaching, a few sing-a-longs, too many bass kicks to mentions and more than a few tripped out moments when the aural magic carpet ride floating around the room picked you up and took you for a spin. It was apt that his set ended with CJ Bolland's The Prophet, an undoubted Oakey classic but also a nuclear powered dance track we've all probably lost it to at one time or another.

After the event, there has a collective swell and outpouring of emotion related to the night, it's the first time in 10 years I can remember the sense of community upon which the scene used to be based. It's been so fervent, in fact, that Cream have actually booked Seb Fontaine to play the last finale of the trio on Boxing Day this year, closing out the Main Room no doubt. So, clearly there's always time for one further plot twist. That night sees a mix of new and old, although you get the sense the latter might just be the order of the day.

I mentioned the term perfect storm before, and this was that no doubt. But as the last one of its kind, by definition, it became a milestone that won't be witnessed again. It's poignantly because of that exact context that this occasion was just so truly unique.

WORDS | Grego O'Halloran PHOTOGRAPHY | Anthony Mooney

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