by Michael Ross
"We always blow the big ones," Jerry Garcia said once upon a time, and that's a list that includes Monterey, Woodstock, Egypt. Playing at the foot of the Great Pyramid — the Gizah Sound and Light Theater in Cairo — was one of the biggest stoned ideas come to life, though, after considerable effort put in by management, the band and, yes, ambassadors. So, in September 1978, the band, along with about a hundred "family" members and a few hundred Deadheads, trekked out to the land of the pharaohs for three nights of music. The idea was to offset the cost of the trip with a live record from the performances. But when the band listened back to the tapes, that idea was ditched and the trip written off as a good time and a monetary loss.
So, why now, 30 years later, do we get this, a two CD plus DVD set from shows deemed unreleasable so long ago? Well, technology for one; Jeffrey Norman's HDCD remastering sounds worlds better than any umpteenth-generation cassette that might be lingering in your collection. Also, there's video footage, and that's always a bonus. But probably the real reason is that Deadheads are hungry! Hungry for output from a band that hasn't existed for more than a decade, and never will again. (The Dead, Phil's band, Bobby's band — great stuff all but it just ain't the same without the fat man.) And to be fair, Garcia wasn't completely accurate; there are some moments here. When oud and tar player Hamza El Din takes the stage with the Nubian Youth Choir for El Din's own "Ollin Arageed" and the Dead blend it seamlessly into "Fire on the Mountain" (during a full lunar eclipse no less!) there is some of the old Grateful Dead magic at play. That sequence leads eventually to a long and exploratory "Shakedown Street" that borders on hypnotic. Unfortunately, these are standout examples, and it's easy to see why Rhino and the Dead organization chose to ignore the pleas of many heads and put out a "highlights" set rather than take the "every note played" approach. Whether they had their minds on vacation or were distracted with the setting over the music (or just some of that good old heavy black Egyptian hash), the band just sounds a little tired much of the time. Granted, Bill Kreutzmann (drums) had a broken hand and there was probably some jetlag involved, but the execution just often isn't there.
The DVD concert footage is comprised completely of music that's on the CDs and is a little grainy and often shaky, but the "Vacation Tapes" are pretty fun; just footage of the band and crew hanging out, riding camels, deciphering hieroglyphics and chillin' on a post-show Nile boatride, set to music from the shows. And, as is often the case, if you ordered from Dead.net there is a bonus disc included which, frustratingly, holds some of the finest moments of these shows — an "Estimated Prophet"-"Eyes of the World"-"Terrapin Station" triple-whammy that smokes, and really belongs on the set proper.
The packaging has its heart in the right place, but the little pop-up pyramids and Sphinx are actually a little clumsy and a little cheesy-chintzy.
Overall, this set is a nice capper to what seemed for 30 years like an unfinished chapter in the Dead's storied history; musically it's good for collectors to have a great-sounding document of these shows. But I wouldn't use it to initiate the unenlightened.
Now. The Road Trips series has made for a lot of disgruntled heads who prefer full-show releases, but it stated from the start that it was not Dick's Picks; the idea being to feature highlights of small tours and multi-show runs. If the highlights for this release are any indication, though, this set would be a prime argument for the full-show treatment; just a month and some change after the Egypt shows (billed "From Egypt with Love," the band played to a backdrop of slides from that excursion), these performances are universes away from that musically-spotty affair. The band — which had been holed up working on the tracks for Shakedown Street, out just a few weeks later — sounds energized, fired up, tight-but-loose in that Grateful Dead way. Even the short "rockers" which don't ordinarily translate too well to the living room have an energy and inventiveness to them that holds up well outside Bill Graham's beloved old Winterland Arena.
And the longer pieces ... well, put it this way: Bassist Phil Lesh once said something to the effect of, "when we're on, it's like no one can hit a wrong note if we tried" — that applies here, every spidery line perfectly placed. The "Scarlet Begonias"-"Fire on the Mountain" is everything you'd want it to be, with a loooong luxurious transition with just the right amounts of push-and-pull elasticity. Guitarist John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service) sits in on "Not Fade Away" and "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" to nice effect, and Lee Oskar (of heavy funk-rock outfit War) blows harp on a few selections, including a thunderous "The Other One" — even Hamza El Din reprises his Egypt appearance with "Ollin Arageed." In Grateful Dead parlance, the tail end of "Not Fade Away" veers into an unlisted "Mind Left Body Jam," played ever so rarely in the post-retirement (1975) years.
Unfortunately, though, we've gotta log the same old complaint: Some of the best stuff is on the bonus disc again, which was only available with pre-orders from Dead.net. So those are long gone, but worth seeking out if you've got a kind friend. The "Estimated Prophet" here is one of the best ever, and if that weren't enough, it settles peacefully into a "He's Gone" for the ages, and that's followed by one of only a handful of live treatments of "If I Had the World to Give." If you passed that tune off as a nice if forgettable MOR-ish track on Shakedown like I always did, you're in for a surprise as the end is played out beautifully, Jerry easing into nearly "outside" soloing before it settles back down.
And 1978 could be a spotty year for the Dead, as keyboardist Keith Godchaux was becoming increasingly unreliable and lazy on stage, Jerry's drug use was beginning to have adverse affects, and the band was adjusting to regularly playing sheds and stadiums. This document, along with Dick's Picks #25 (from May of that year), attests to the heights the band could still reach on a good night and are surely worth seeking out.
Mike Ross is the leader of local avant-rockers Pinkeye.
Mike Ross writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.