Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Album Of The Week: The Grateful Dead- Europe '72

My hope is that, as more time passes, the new people getting into the Grateful Dead will hear them without any of the baggage associated with them. When the band was still kicking around in the 80s and 90s, they were always seen as harmless and toothless holdovers from an era and youth culture that had long since passed. A band of hippies, but worse, they were also yawn inducing noodlers who's music was only interesting when you were stoned or tripping. But after Jerry Garcia's death and the subsequent re-flowering of the jam band scene in the late 90s, focus was taken off the Dead as the center of the "I hate hippies and their music sucks" mentality. Open minded people began to go back to the band's music and discovered a band who, in their prime, were every bit as worthy of the critical praise and commercial success of "classic rock" contemporaries like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, et al.

Europe '72 is probably the best introduction to the band's music as a whole. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are their best studio releases, but due to their stripped down country/folk/blues style, they aren't very representative of what the band sounded like live. As for the essential Live/Dead, surely one of the greatest albums of all time (let alone live albums), well, it's definitely got too much of the psychedelic improvisation and not enough traditional songs. Europe '72 strikes a great balance between the more song oriented first disc and the wide open vistas of second; that said, we now know that the band went back in to touch up their vocals, in studio, so this release isn't technically a true live document. But since the Dead's vocals could often be rough live, it made this release better to include their more honed studio harmonies as learned from Crosby, Stills, & Nash and first demonstrated on the Workingman's Dead album.

I would suspect that a lot of people who hate the Dead, or think they do, have never listened to their stuff from before the 80s. Roughly the band's first decade is almost universally excellent, and those who think of the Dead as harmless noodlers will be shocked by the electric acid freak outs of their first few years. By the time of their famous European tour in 1972, the band had also began to mix in their country/blues/folk influences, as well as newer original material that had an Americana or pre-rock era mythos to it, whether it be the famous 'Casey Jones', their takes on standards like 'Samson & Delilah', or a pastiche like 'Greatest Story Ever Told.' Live/Dead and their pre-'71 era may have gotten me into the band, but once I began to appreciate their songs as much as their extended improvisation and segues, Europe '72 was what made me stop apologizing for loving the band. I honestly believe that the Dead were one of the greatest American bands of all time, and I say that as someone who many would describe as a hipster with a record store clerk's penchant for modern, "indie rock" music and obscure old stuff. But I digress.

Europe '72 plays like a sampler of everything that Deadheads love. It doesn't feature absolutely every fan favorite, but nothing short of a huge box set could--and even then, people would be arguing about which version to include. It does, however, give the listener a wonderful smattering of fundamentals, like the classic 'China Cat Sunflower'/'I Know You Rider' pairing, joined by a fluid upbeat segue; the wah-wah'd bliss of the "sunshine daydream" outro to 'Sugar Magnolia'; a Pigpen sung blues tune ('Hurts Me Too'); and the sequence that begins with 'Truckin' and ends with 'Morning Dew', a nonstop 37ish minutes of music. The record label, or whoever, wisely broke this up into four tracks with an 'Epilogue' and 'Prelude' for newer fans to easily digest, though the second or so of silence between the two was likely added/edited for the original vinyl record since for time constraints. For all intents and purposes these two tracks are just a segue/improvisation that could just as easily have been listed as a single 'Jam' track on CD. Speaking of changes for the CD, the best of the bonus material is at the end of disc two. No, not the hidden joke about the dog. The actual music portion of the bonus is a very meaty 30 or so minutes and demonstrates the band's ability to quickly weave in and out of tracks. The 'Caution/Who Do You Love/Caution' sandwich in the middle that's bookended by 'Good Lovin' is particularly great.

Even those intrigued by the Dead may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the band's official live releases, let alone the huge catalog of audience tapes that are even more readily accessible on the Internet today. I would point to Europe '72 as the best starting place for anyone who wants a sample of the band. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are great albums, but often people who like those don't end up liking the Dead; those albums are the end point and all these people enjoy or want. But ideally, Europe '72 will represent only the beginning and a point of conversion for new fans. I know it was for me.

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