It is such a treat to have an ongoing series of full-show releases of Grateful Dead concerts released by Rhino and the Dead (4 a year). Most of these shows were not originally recorded with the intention of commercial release, so many are imperfect insomuch as the mixes are not as precise as one might be used to on your typical “Live album.” But this is nothing new to even the most newbie of Dead-Heads.
The Grateful Dead were one of the few bands who not only allowed their shows to be taped by audience members, they actually encouraged it! As a result, different quality sound recordings are part of the Grateful Dead listening experience. And soundboard recordings, also of varying quality –not to mention generations (from back in the ol’ tape cassette trading days)– have always been with us, either through the generosity of folks at the board letting tapers plug in, or in those unintended releases that found their way into unofficial circulation like the famed “Betty Boards.”
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.
Rhino’s newest Grateful Dead concert release, “Crimson, White & Indigo” is a DVD/CD combo set, this time from Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium on July 7, 1989. This was the last event at the old stadium before it was torn down and the Dead seemed intent on making her final moments memorable. And so they were.
Somewhat past their prime, the Grateful Dead nonetheless came together on this night to deliver a show that was not only uncharacteristically tight for its period, but showed the band members having more fun on stage than had been seen in a while. The band had been in the studio working on their newest (and, as it would turn out, final) studio album, and this may have something to do with the fact that the boys seemed more connected and present here than they had in the years leading up to this tour and, sadly, in the years to follow.
The DVD is presented in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it was displayed on the big screens at the stadium itself. Len Dell’Amico’s direction, while not particularly inspired, is rarely distracting and allows us to watch the band at play. Thankfully this time without the annoying psychedelic visuals that accompanied some of the Dead’s earlier video releases.
The sound is offered in both 2.0 and 5.1. While we hope Rhino will eventually begin offering these releases on Blu-ray for the benefit of lossless audio, the sound here on both mixes is quite clean. That said, there is something a bit odd about the 5.1 mix. While all instruments are present, the mix uses the surrounds in unconventional ways, often throwing a percussion beat here or a drum beat there. It is oftentimes more distracting than enveloping. And while the audience is somewhat present in the surrounds on this release, they are quite distant and place the viewer more on stage with the band as opposed to being in the audience itself. A stronger soundboard/audience matrix might have been welcome, but at the end of the day, it boils down to personal preference and there is certainly nothing here to complain about on a technical level.
Rhino’s new release offers a glimpse into the Grateful Dead’s inconsistent later years on a night when everything came together to illuminate a special moment and the band seemed poised to take the music to new heights. Sadly, a little more than a year later, keyboardist Brent Mydland would die of an overdose. Six years later would see the staggering loss of lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia. The rough roads ahead were paved with ups and downs and the struggles took their toll both musically and personally. But for a moment, the Grateful Dead stood before a crowd of fans at Philly’s JFK and played their hearts out. And Rhino has done fans the honor of allowing us to relive that moment with their new DVD/CD release. Hopefully, they will do the same for some of the great shows videotaped in the 70’s so that later generations can see and hear what the Dead were like at their peak; before the massive crowds following the popularity of “Touch of Grey” changed the scene dramatically, and before the signs of substance abuse and personal struggles started to take its toll on the music.
Please visit the Grateful Dead’s official site at Dead.net for more audio and video releases (many unavailable elsewhere), current news, and all things Grateful Dead.
Here is the trailer for “Crimson, White & Indigo” that was put together for a last minute theatrical run of the concert that played here in Los Angeles, as well as other cities across the country:
The Grateful Dead‘s newest release ROCKING THE CRADLE has been slowly arriving in mailboxes all week. I was one of the lucky ones, apparently, who got mine early and undamaged. There have been some quality control issues surrounding this set that I feel confident Rhino will address in a timely and professional manner. They’re just starting to figure out the level of “commitment” Deadheads have to this music and the ravenous collection of such. And their previous releases since acquiring the Grateful Dead’s vault of music have been tremendous. The WINTERLAND ’73 BOX SET is an extraordinary collection, beautifully packaged and presented. A real treat for Dead fans. As was LIVE AT THE COW PALACE from 1976. Lovingly mixed and one of the best New Year’s shows the Dead ever played (they were not always on the ball those nights). I have heard complaints about the recycled cardboard packaging on the ROAD TRIPS sets, but have not acquired those as I’m usually a “full show” snob and those sets are compilations.
However, ROCKING THE CRADLE does not offer up all the music played at the Dead’s historic 1978 trip to the Gizah Sound and Light Theatre in Cairo, Egypt, but what’s there is certainly among the highlights and, quite possibly, all we’ll ever get. The set includes 2 CDs of music, 1 “bonus” CD for those who ordered before September 30th, and 1 DVD of actual footage of the band playing, as well as behind the scenes super 8 home movies documenting the Dead “family” adventures through the cradle of civilization.
Let’s start with the CDs. The sound is mixed with perfection. I’ve heard these shows before, both in audience and soundboard, and I’ve never heard them sound this crisp. Every instrument is crystal clear and perfectly balanced. The same goes for the bonus disc. I’m not sure why this wasn’t just included as part of the package as it really is an essential part of the collection. Apparently, the sound recording for the first of the three nights played was damaged and that is why September 14th is not represented here at all. It’s a shame, but some things are unavoidable.
Now the DVD. I want to thank the folks who put this together for allowing me to access this historic event in a way not possible before. I had seen some of the video footage shot by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, but the sound quality on that was questionable at best and, though fascinating, never quite engaging. While the video here is shaky and unprofessional at times–even to the point of actually losing site of the band entirely and drifting off into darkness–at least there are several cameras running simultaneously and the sound is massive, especially the DTS 5.1 mix. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any information as to exactly what footage was available to the producers of this set and how the editing choices were made. For example, most of the songs “fade out” instead of continuing the jams into transitions. Most disappointing is the fade out during the final jam in FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, thus losing one of the evenings best moments and a great transition into IKO IKO, a song which is, thankfully, included here. It is altogether possible that the footage available for that portion of the show was simply unusable and that is why this decision was made. However, I would love to know about that. I recognize that it’s perhaps not customary for fans to request so much knowledge about the making of a “product”, but Deadheads have a rather “special” relationship to all things Dead, and many of us are completists and simply want as much as is available. Strange, I know, but there’s nothing like sitting down and immersing oneself in an uninterrupted show, especially when captured on DVD. If the experience is available to be had, many of us would love to have it. I would also question why they chose to jumble many of the songs out of the order in which they were performed. The progression of songs, the unfolding of the setlist, is often as much a part of the show as the music itself. For those who don’t know, the Dead never played the same show twice. And even if they HAD, they wouldn’t have played it the same way. So what they play and in what order has been of fascination to fans since the Dead first started performing. It is truly part of the energy, uniqueness, and experience of each and every show.
Now for the Bonus Material. “The Vacation Tapes”, a rare and intimate portrait of the band and their close “family” of friends and lovers starting from their arrival in Cairo, through the shows themselves, culminating in a three day boat trip down the Nile. Here we are privy to moments rarely seen as we get to watch the Dead off-stage and in a very “normal” light. It is refreshing and fun and truly made me wish I had been a part of the whole adventure as it unfolded.
The music itself. Part of the reputation of these shows is that the band didn’t play very well. And they were the first to say so. Since the Dead were largely an improvisational band, the music and its energy was different from one night to the next. Some nights they were on, some nights they were off. And both ends of the spectrum could be rather dramatic! What’s fascinating here is that there was some truly inspired and tight playing to be heard from the Dead’s various tours throughout 1978. But what happens in Egypt these 3 nights is unlike anything the Dead had played before or since. And there are certainly a combination of factors that added to that. One is the possible pressure of being the first western band permitted to play Egypt. Another is the PA system which was loaned to the Dead by The Who (England is much closer). The setting itself: a beautiful outdoor theatre nestled beneath the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Gizah. Add to the third night a lunar eclipse and, well, the energy MUST have been interesting to say the least. Then there’s the audience: hordes of Deadheads traveled from far and wide to be here and they danced side by side with Egyptians, many of whom had never heard this music before and slowly found the groove as the nights progressed.
Then there are stories of Jerry’s addiction and the fact that he had to take a hiatus from some “medicines” his body may have been quite used to at this point. But whatever the reasons, the Dead had moments of fascinating beauty up there, as well as moments when the rhythm just seemed to slip out from under them as they all scrambled to find their way back. Perhaps it had to do with drummer Bill Kreutzman having one hand in a cast. Or maybe not, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to watch Jerry trying to get everybody rhythmically in sync during LOOKS LIKE RAIN which, oddly enough, turns out to be a terrific rendition. Same goes for GOOD LOVIN’, which really hits a wall and never quite recovers. But all this gives the evening an odd yet exciting tension that everything could collapse at any given moment. And when it doesn’t, the music SOARS or, at worst, finds a shaky life that is quite thrilling. It is music and energy unique to this set of shows and this venue. It’s a version of the Dead unlike any other. And while I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the band’s live performances, I think it’s a must for anyone already familiar and looking for new variations and new experiences from the Dead’s treasure trove of musical journeys. Garcia’s voice is in top form and he seems to be having a blast up there. It’s odd that the Dead chose not to play any cuts from their acclaimed BLUES FOR ALLAH album (the best of the studio offerings, in my opinion) as it seemed an obvious choice and a rare opportunity. However, I’m sure they had their reasons and just getting to watch the Dead jam with percussionist Hamza El Din and the Nubian Youth Choir up on that stage, in that surreal and magical setting, is worth the price of admission.
ROCKING THE CRADLE is incomplete, imperfect, and worth every penny. It does what most great things do; it leaves you wanting more. And if there is more out there, I hope it will find its way to release as well. I, for one, will look forward to buying it.
Here’s a taste of the Grateful Dead playing a rockin’ version of DEAL from the third night, September 16, 1978: