Grateful Dead Rocking The Cradle - Egypt 1978 Grateful Dead/Rhino
If there was ever a Grateful Dead adventure that deserved assiduous archiving, it has to be their 1978 journey to Egypt, when they gave three concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramid. Rocking the Cradle - Egypt 1978, a two-CD (plus bonus disc) and DVD set, serves however to illustrate what a "you had to be there" experience the band's trip to the so-called cradle of civilization actually was.
It's something of a truism that the Grateful Dead had difficulty rising to a big occasionWoodstock 1969 and the closing of Winterland in 1979 spring to mind, and the Egypt shows might qualify for inclusion as well. Yet the scale and ambition of the project, in logistical terms alone, renders its realization amazing in itself. Hints of the administrative complexity appear on the DVD, while the liner notes describe the complex machinations.
No doubt being in the desert localethe third night under an eclipse of the full moonwas memorable, perhaps something awe-inspiring, in itself. Yet that suggests the music was only part of what guitarist Jerry Garcia termed performance art. Liner note author Alan Trist, head of the Dead's music publishing arm, Ice Nine, describes the experience as a headfirst immersion in a culture that may have left even these seasoned warriors in of a state of shock.
On much of the first disc, there's a palpable sense of the group working ever so hard to generate a full head of steam. Early in a competent version of "Fire on the Mountain" Garcia wails, "takes all you got just to keep the beat," and so, more often than not, it sounds. No doubt this was in part because drummer Bill Kreutzmann was playing one-handed due to injury, leaving rhythm partner Mickey Hart, usually the one to decorate the beat, to maintain the tempo.
Truth be told, for the bulk of the two hours-plus on the main Rocking The Cradle discs, the Dead struggle. Again, it's probably a case of the musicians succumbing to the intense sensory stimuli resulting from being near the banks of the Nile (the tourism aspect of which is captured in the footage included on the DVD titled "The Vacation Tapes"). Garcia's first discernible prominence is a moment of clarity during rhythm guitarist Bob Weir's "Looks Like Rain," with Weir unusually evident in the proceedings as main vocalist.
The septet, which in 1978 included vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux and keyboardist Keith Godchaux, finds their frisky way into Buddy Holly's "It's All Over Now"thanks perhaps to being freed fromtheir own material for a while. The Dead found at least some semblance of abandon here, in contrast to an overall sense of playing too carefully for their own good.
Certainly, the technical side of recording the shows might have dampened the sense of adventure, especially after the discovery that most of the first night's tapes were unusable. Much of what archivist David Lemieux has culled for the two main CDs derives from the final night of 9/16 (in a reach for cause and effect on the part of the Dead mindset, this was the day before the monumental peace accords were announced).
Half of the bonus disc derives from 9/15, half from 9/16. A more tightly executed string of decidedly diverse material, this hour-plus of music demonstrates how Phil Lesh's bass acts as fulcrum for the band. Particularly in the material from the 16th, such as "Bertha," the band pivots around him and his instrument. Whether it's the jaunty "Ramble On Rose" or even the more rapid clip of "El Paso," Lesh sets the pace with grace and purpose before the drummers falling into step on Weir's reggae tinged "Estimated Prophet." The entire ensemble is thus prepared to navigate the light-stepping likes of "Eyes of the World" and render the theme to "Terrapin Station" with all the regal air called for. In such close proximity to the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, the band might have done well to surrender to the multiple stimuli of these wonders of the world and play more rather than less freely. No doubt some lulls lacking purpose might still have occurred, but whether such intervals are more or less taxing to endure than a flat performance of a set piece like "Jack Straw" is debatable.
Even so, the way the Dead seem lifted by the intro of celebrated Nubian percussionist Hamza el Din and his troupe for "Ollin Arageed" is yet another demonstration how they preferred to find their way into their particular space for a performance. In the case of these appearances at Gizah Sound And Light Theater, the run as a whole might well be perceived as a series of sets where the band finds traction part way through, generates momentum, then builds upon it. When the Dead intuitively realize the end is nigh on September 16, they truly take flight on "Truckin.'"
"Stella Blue" then sounds like nothing so much as a consecration of the Deadhead clan's stay in Cairo, and Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" an act of faith in the merry-go-round of serendipity/synchronicity that Grateful Dead always appeared to be.
Musical content aside, Rocking The Cradle - Egypt 1978 is even more colorfully and creatively packaged than is customary for such treasured titles, and Alton Kelly's original graphics are effectively celebrated with stand-ups that unfold inside the tri-fold digi-pak.
Track listing: CD1: Jack Straw; Row Jimmy; New, New Minglewood Blues; Candyman; Looks Like Rain; Stagger Lee; I Need a Miracle; It's All Over Now; Deal. CD2: Ollin Arageed; Fire on the Mountain; Iko Iko; Shakedown Street; Drums; Space; Truckin'; Stella Blue; Around and Around. DVD: Bertha; Good Lovin'; Row Jimmy; New, New Minglewood Blues; Candyman; Looks Like Rain; Deal; Ollin Arageed; Fire on the Mountain; Iko Iko; I Need a Miracle; It's All Over Now; Truckin'; The Vacation Tapes.
Personnel: Jerry Garcia: guitar, vocals; Bob Weir: guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh: bass, vocals; Keith Godchaux: keyboards, vocals; Mickey Hart; drums, percussion, vocals; Bill Kreutzmann: drums, vocals; Donna Jean Godchaux: vocals; Hamza el Din: percussion, vocals; Nubian Youth Choir: vocals.