Rocking the Cradle:
- Buy the CD
Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz
This cryptic phrase from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead graced the cover of the Grateful Dead’s first album in 1967. It came to seem somehow prophetic or destined, then, when the band played a run of historic shows in Egypt in front of the Great Pyramid from September 14-16, 1978. Now, 30 years later, the GD organization has finally decided it’s time for an official release from the shows.
The shows weren’t so much historic because of the performances themselves, which ranged from good to occasionally great to beset with technical difficulties and jetlagged miscues. But just the fact that an American rock ‘n’ roll band was playing at the Great Pyramid with the Sphinx alongside was quite something. The band was convinced of the idea by then-manager Richard Loren. In his autobiography, Searching for the Sound, bassist Phil Lesh wrote: “Richard saw a connection between the loose, laid-back lifestyle of the Egyptians and the spirit of the Haight… It could be a hands-across-the water-event.”
Lesh later convinced Egyptian ambassador Ashraf Gorbal by saying, “I am interested in how the different places we play affect our music, and I can think of no greater venue than the Great Pyramid.” The band’s crew even tried to wire up the King’s Chamber inside the Great Pyramid to use as an echo chamber, but the technicalities of such an endeavor proved insurmountable. All these details and many more, including some fantastic photos, come in the extensive liner note booklet by longtime GD compatriot Alan Trist.
Fans looking for the band’s best musical releases from the era will find more to be impressed with by The Closing of Winterland set from 12/31/78 or the Dick’s Picks, Volume 18 release from Februrary ’78 shows in Madison, Wis., and Cedar Falls, Iowa. But there’s enough good stuff here to make Cradle worth having. It takes the best of what’s available, packages it beautifully with a pop-up insert of the pyramids and Sphinx under a lunar eclipse (as took place the third night) and adds in a DVD that provides the real treasure.
The original 24-track recordings have been remastered in HDCD for crystal clear superior sound quality that truly sparkles. 16 of the 18 CD tracks are taken from the third and final show on September 16 when the band had its act most together. Highlights of the first disc/set include crisp renditions of “Jack Straw,” “New Minglewood Blues,” “Candyman,” “I Need a Miracle,” and “Deal.”
The second disc is better still, opening with “Ollin Arageed,” an arrangement of an Egyptian song put together by GD drummer Mickey Hart’s cohort Hamza El Din and the Nubian Youth Choir. It’s here that the GD starts to raise the otherworldly vibe that one would expect from such an affair. The voices of chanting Egyptians onstage mixed with Jerry Garcia’s spacey guitar conjures a timeless and truly mystical vibe. The band uses the tune as a launchpad into a 14-minute “Fire on the Mountain” that continues to explore groovy heights. It’s not going to make anyone forget about the 5/8/77 Cornell version, but Garcia gets in some nimble lead work while the band grooves behind him and this sounds great cranked up on the stereo.
The highlight of the show may well be a 15-minute “Shakedown Street” that hits all the right funky notes. Garcia’s guitar really comes alive here, while Bob Weir and Phil Lesh really funk it up as does keyboardist Keith Godcheaux. The mix is truly superb, with each instrument clear and separated. The “Truckin’” that comes out of “Space” is pretty good too, played with energy and gusto, unlike the sub-par “Iko Iko” sandwiched between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Shakedown.” The band gets into some deep jamming on “Shakedown” and the “Truckin’.” and one can only imagine the scene – except wait, there’s the DVD, and it’s here that this collection elevates to the four-star level.
The DVD features roughly 97 minutes from the September 16 show, including a “Bertha/Good Lovin’” not on the CD. Some of the songs are cut short, presumably due to technical issues, but there’s lots of great footage of the band rocking out here. There are also numerous cuts to the crowd and landscape, providing a long sought document of what this scene was like. Also included is “The Vacation Tapes,” a vignette featuring Super 8 footage taken by manager Loren of the visit. Watching the likes of Garcia, Weir, Ken Kesey and Bill Graham cavorting around ancient Egypt is a trip.
The band admitted afterwards that the shows weren’t as good as they’d hoped, with Garcia saying something to the effect of “we always blow the big ones.” But these shows remain a historic event nonetheless. The day after the shows, the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel were signed. Coincidence? Not if you ask anyone who was there.