In the Gears

Will Johns chats about the Music of Cream, dodging the blues police and taking the solo of his career

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Will Johns, nephew of Eric Clapton, playing in Music of Cream
Christine Connallon

The Music of Cream’s tour manager (his name is Simon), fielded my call to Will Johns a couple of weeks ago, and walked the phone out to the tour bus. The band was on Vancouver Island, prepping for the second night of their almost three-month tour, and Johns was changing strings on his Music Man EVH solid body, the unmistakable sound of clinking metal strands coming up to pitch, the working guitarist’s minute of dotage with his best friend for the night. 

He asks if it was OK he did that while we chatted. Sure, why not, even if it usually takes two hands to do it, and it doesn’t sound like he’s using a headset. 

Not trying to bait him or anything, but doesn’t he have a guitar tech?

“Yeah, I should have a tech doing it for me, but… I’m not precious, I don’t mind doin’ it myself. And that way I know it’s done right,” he says with a laugh.

Strum. Not quite up to pitch. Sounds like they need a stretch.

“What’s funny is that Kofi likes to cut the sleeves of his T-shirts, right? And he’s got all this psychedelic shit that he wears, so I’ve got all these little psychedelic sleeve cut-offs which are perfect for stretching the strings. We’re even recycling that little bit of psychedelia.”

Kofi, of course, is Kofi Baker, the drummer son of Ginger Baker and Johns’ partner in his ongoing Cream tribute enterprise. Johns is also Eric Clapton’s nephew (he’s the son of famed engineer Andy Johns and Paula Boyd, sister of Clapton’s ex-wife Patti). The MoC project started a couple of years ago with a short tour of Australia and New Zealand to commemorate Cream’s 50th anniversary, and has since taken on a rambling inertia all its own. 

The band, currently a four-piece with bassist Sean McNabb and guitarist Chris Shutters, is performing Disraeli Gears top to bottom, alongside a handful of Clapton songs. The show includes personal stories and video images from those bonkers days of the late ’60s, when Cream was the biggest band in the world, furiously chiseling the blues-rock power trio paradigm into rock history before flaming out in less than three years under the pressures of exhaustion, chemicals and personal antagonisms. (Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were famously at each other’s throats, more or less all the time.)    

Johns didn’t step into this spotlight merely through family associations, though. A well-respected blues-rock guitarist in his own right, Johns has a number of acclaimed albums to his name, as well as a few British Blues Award nominations for his solo work, so he aims for more than a costumed note-for-note tribute gig.

But there’s plenty of resistance for Johns in his home country of England — squeezed between the glittery pop confection that chokes the hit radio airwaves on one flank and the ever-disparaging blues-purist contingent on the other, Johns prefers to take his gig eastward.

“Oh yeah, I don’t bother with [touring the U.K.],” he says. “After slogging up the M1 … for a great many years, for no money — even if some satisfaction — I generally don’t rock with it. I prefer to go to Europe, to countries like the Czech Republic, and Moscow, where I go as part of the The Great British Rhythm and Blues Invasion. Whereas in the U.K., you’re kind up against the ‘blues police,’ sort of like, ‘Who do you think you are? Trying to impress me… you’re not John Lee Hooker.’ That sort of attitude.”

The States may be a little easier. Guys like Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr. are succeeding in the blues arena, drawing big crowds and critical plaudits. And making a living.

“And they come over to the U.K. also, and pull some big ticket prices as well,” Johns says. “I think the genre is alive and well, and I feel like I want to put my own stamp on it. Because I think it’s important music, and it’s important all around the world. Places like Moscow and the Czech Republic, and to these people, this kind of music is what’s real.” 

Johns has been able to bring his dedication and callouses to bear on the music of Cream, striking a balance between representing that long ago trio, and keeping its roots vivid and meaningful. 

“I think, just naturally, we’re able to interpret the music our way. We’ve come so far with being inspired by our respective parents and uncles and whatnot, but then being serious musicians, I guess that somehow we’ve been able to take what they’ve done and take it a bit further.

“But yeah, I’ve had to put what I’m doing a little bit on the back burner. It’s hard to make plans around these sorts of tours, because you’ve got a long run-up. I’m working on a new blues album at the moment, all my favorite blues songs, just kind of standards. Songs I’ve played over the years, bits that I’ve added my own flavor to and so on. But I have great fun doing this — it’s great for keeping the chops up. There’s so much room for improvisation in what we’re doing — it’s not just rehashing the same shit over and over again.”

And just the band’s lineup suggests this isn’t a cut-out Cream tribute — there are two guitarists, for one thing.

“It’s working out real good, a real fat sound,” Johns says. “These guys can really play. And because it’s the nature of what we’re doing, doing Disraeli Gears, which is a production album, produced by Felix Pappalardi. Having an extra guitarist in the band really lends itself to this stuff, as Eric was doing a lot of multi-tracking. It allows us to deliver the tunes more like they were conceived in the studio.”

A few weeks ago, Clapton, the last remaining member of Cream on this side of the grass, hosted a tribute to Ginger Baker (who passed away in October; Jack Bruce passed in 2014) at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. The stage was crammed with Brit rock royalty — Steve Winwood, Paul Carrack, Ronnie Wood, Roger Waters, Nile Rodgers; Johns and Kofi Baker were holding down the next-gen seats. For the encore, hardly unexpectedly, Clapton pulled out “Crossroads,” the Robert Johnson tune that probably epitomized Cream at its fang-bearing apex. Clapton hasn’t done the tune at the breakneck pace captured in March 1968 at Winterland, arguably the gold standard, for years, trimming its gallop to a three-quarter tempo, and after taking his own solo and giving Wood his turn, he turned to Johns for his solo. 

Icy clean and right on point. 

Any working blues rock guitarist should be able to pull off this solo… but in the company of Eric Clapton, at Ginger Baker’s tribute concert? No pressure, right?    

“That must have been my most amazing onstage moment ever, to be honest,” Johns admits. “I couldn’t have dreamed I’d be onstage with Eric if you’d have asked me six months ago. And what a way to send Uncle Ginger off, you know? And Kofi got his solo, which was an emotional thing for him as well.

“It was just amazing, and a spiritually fulfilling thing for me personally. After a lifetime of playing, if there was anyone who I’d want to impress — other than myself — it’d be my uncle.”

But a little tense? 

“Well, yeah,” he chuckles. “I didn’t want to fuck it up.”

One lap around a 12-bar blues in A, how much trouble can you get into? 

“When you’re up there with your uncle like that, there’s always that danger, y’know, get caught like a rabbit in the headlights, fluff a note or something, and you beat yourself up afterwards and all that.

“But no, I think I did OK.”