On The Road Again: London, England April 7 & 8, 1972

It’s hard to describe to non-Heads exactly why the Grateful Dead’s first tour of Europe was so special. And therefore, why anyone would spend a nice chunk of change purchasing the recently released box set of all 22 shows (73 CDs!). That’s every note recorded. Luckily for us, Warner Bros. Music offered to foot a large portion of the tour’s bill if the band would bring along its 16-track recorder so that a live album could be released. And what an album it was! My very first Grateful Dead purchase, in fact. This was the sound that drew me in and has yet to release me from its loving embrace. But that album was just a small taste of the music that was played on that tour. Not to mention the decision to record new, perfectly-harmonized vocals for that album.

Thankfully, this time around, the original vocals remain intact. And contradicting any doubts the studio may have had at the time, they are glorious.

The Grateful Dead had played a couple of shows in Europe before 1972, but they were singular events, not a tour. For many people across the continent, the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European tour was the first time they had a chance to see this extraordinary band live. The Grateful Dead had been around for only 7 years at this point. They were still playing relatively small theaters, but to packed houses. No one knew for sure what kind of response the band would get overseas, but everyone involved felt it was time to find out. The Dead, being who they were, decided to bring along every member of their extended family who expressed an interest in joining them. In the end, that totaled 53 very excited individuals. These travelers were split between two large buses. These bands of merry pranksters became known as the Bozos and the Bolos. Add to that a very leisurely tour schedule, and now-legendary competitive antics ensued.

The band’s first stop was meant to be a four-night run at London’s 3,000 seat Rainbow Theatre. But as the Dead’s luck would have it, the Rainbow shut down due to financial difficulties just before the Dead’s arrival. Tour manager Sam Cutler (of Rolling Stones fame) scrambled to find some new digs for the kids to play in and he was able to secure them two nights at London’s Wembley Arena (aka Empire Pool). Wembley was FAR bigger than anything the band had wanted to play (12,000 seats!), not to mention acoustically challenging, but the boys managed to bring in a crowd bigger in two days than they would have had with four at the Rainbow. And with a little creative sound adjusting by Rock Skully (in the form of parachutes hanging from the ceiling), the band took the stage and knocked it out of the park from the first sung words “Moses came riding up on a quasar.” 

This was a tight band. Newest official member, Keith Godcheaux, had a little time to warm up stateside before the London gigs and his presence and talent was on full display. The music was powerful, beautiful, mesmerizing and exploratory. Add Keith’s wife Donna to the mix as a backup vocalist and our European friends never knew what hit them.

The energy of these nights is captured with perfection in this new box set. The remixes are, to my ears, stellar. Like being there. In addition to the 16-track recordings that were being made, there was also a 2-track recorder running simultaneously as a backup. Except on the first night of the tour. The result was Pigpen’s BIG BOSS MAN having its end clipped (it fades out on the recording) and the first set CASEY JONES not being recorded at all :(

But what remains makes up for it. The second set journey of TRUCKIN’->DRUMS-> THE OTHER ONE-> EL PASO-> THE OTHER ONE-> WHARF RAT is mind-boggling. What this audience must have thought! Rumor has it that once Wembley’s security team got off duty (well before the long show’s end), they took off their uniforms and danced with the audience. Listening to this recording, it’s easy to understand why.

The second night may be even better than the first. Pig’s first set GOOD LOVIN’ is epic, while Weir’s LOOKS LIKE RAIN transcended itself with Garcia on pedal steel. Oh, that he would have kept that on all their tours. Very few things in this world are as glorious as Garcia on pedal steel. The second set gave us what is easily one of the best DARK STARs ever played. The transition into SUGAR MAGNOLIA is so perfect, so relaxed and natural that you almost wish it would never end. This segues into the recently resurrected CAUTION (DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS) which moves like a steamroller over the crowd extending to a full 18 minutes and closing out the set with one hell of a bang!

One must also keep in mind that both Garcia and Weir had just recorded solo albums (Garcia’s with Dead drummer Kreutzmann and Weir’s with the Grateful Dead as his backup band). These two shows were chock-full of never-before-heard-on-European-shores live versions of these songs including BLACK-THROATED WIND, LOOKS LIKE RAIN, ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT, SUGAREE, DEAL, LOSER and GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. In addition to that, brand-spanking new Dead songs were featured, offering a live sample of what would become classic tunes in an ever-evolving repertoire including TENNESSEE JED, BROWN-EYED WOMEN, RAMBLE ON ROSE and MR CHARLIE (the only song to be played every night of the tour).

When all is said and done, this two night stand wowed London and the reviews were ecstatic. And the Dead, still feeling that London deserved a more intimate concert-going experience, agreed to return at the end of the tour for a four-night run at the West End’s 2,000 seat Lyceum Theatre.

For my part, having been too young to join the boys on their first full-fledged European excursion, I will be taking this tour almost 40 years later, moving comfortably from show to show (and mentally from place to place) so as to experience this musical journey as it unfolded.

Two down, twenty more to go.

Next stop, Newcastle, England

Cover of the official 1972 Wembley Program
On The Road Again: London, England April 7 & 8, 1972