By most fan standards, I’m a bit of a Grateful Dead lightweight. I own no bootlegs, and precious few live albums beyond the canonical early ones – “Live Dead”, “Europe ‘72” and so on. Consequently, two things: one, if anyone has recommendations for me from the “Dick’s Picks”/”One From The Vault”/”Road Trips” catalogue, I’d be very grateful (thanks again for everyone’s help navigating a path through Fleetwood Mac, by the way). And two, “Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978” is, I think, my first encounter with live Dead from that period – I reckon the latest show I have is that excellent one from “Cow Palace ‘76”. So forgive me if I can’t quite tell how this one measures up against other contemporary shows.
What I do know about the Dead’s ’78 Egypt shows largely involve anecdotes from Dennis McNally’s “A Long Strange Trip” biog, chiefly their aborted attempts to hook up the King’s Chamber of the Giant Pyramid as an echo chamber, the lunar eclipse during the third and final show, and the chocolate bar-sized blocks of hash that came in useful during the band’s stay.
I’d also heard that the gigs were pretty sluggish, which Disc One of this set initially seems to bear out (there’s two CDs and a DVD – which I don’t have in its entirety – in the set, though apparently a third CD is part of the package if you order from the Dead’s website). “Row Jimmy” seems to have a lackadaisical, mildly reggae-ish roll, while Bob Weir’s “Looks Like Rain” never really takes off. Donna Godchaux’s in slightly disruptive, strident form, too.
But the second CD magically pulls it round. I don’t know from which of the three shows these tracks were taken, but CD2 opens with the Egyptian drums and voices of Hamza El Din’s troupe, who opened the second set on the third night (they opened the whole show on nights one and two) just as the moon was entering eclipse.
As the Dead straggle on and join in, the jam takes on a spidery, trancelike intensity, strikingly similar to the desert blues of Tinariwen. Eventually the drums and voices drift away, and the jam solidifies – insofar as the Dead are ever “solid” – into “Fire On The Mountain”. Plenty of “Shakedown Street” is represented here, and it’s mostly better than the studio versions, not least the title track, where the brittle funk gracefully rolls into a gaseous “Drums/Space” passage and then a comparatively roistering “Truckin’”. Finally, there’s a becalming, delicate “Stella Blue”, where the languid mood fits the song down to the ground, and a perfunctory “Around And Around” – one of those Dead good-time jaunts that, I suspect, you had to be there to really enjoy.
Far from the fiasco of legend, then. But maybe the Dead were playing consistently incantatory shows of ’78 and, in that context, the dazed, hesitant parts of “Rocking The Cradle” are a grave disappointment? Let me know; as ever, I’m here to learn. . .