[20 September 2011]
With the imminent wide release of Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, a 73-disc collection which provides listeners with every note from the Grateful Dead’s legendary 1972 European tour, this two-disc collection might temper one’s temptation to race headlong into such a massive undertaking. Coming nearly 40 years after the release of the monumental Europe ‘72, this sequel doesn’t live up to the original and, in fact, doesn’t come close to living up to several other archival recordings that have seen the light of day in recent years.
Because we Dead fans are obsessives and completists, the band’s archivist, David Lemieux, wisely chose only songs that did not appear on the original collection, including three that were bound for the original release but, as Peter Wolf might say, must have got lost, namely “Beat It on Down the Line”, “Next Time You See Me” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Moreover, care has been taken in other areas: “Good Lovin’” and “Dire Wolf” from the April 26 show at Frankfurt’s Jahrhunderthalle were not released on the 1995 collection Hundred Year Hall. There’s also the inclusion of “Dark Star” and “The Other One” in an hour-long jam from the Bickershaw Festival in Wigan, England – the only time those tracks were performed during the entire ’72 outing.
Where’s the beef? Well, it’s the Dead, so there are amazing moments of sublime distraction throughout. It’d be hard not to smile at the sound of “Sugaree”, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s delivery of “Chinatown Shuffle” finds the band sounding looser, more relaxed than normal. It’s also a fantastic reminder that, for many, Pigpen was the early focal point of the band. That track and “Loser”, “Black-Throated Wind”, and several others are culled from an especially inspired set at Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. On those tracks, the guitar playing, rhythm section and even Garcia’s vocals are especially vibrant.
This trek also marks the entrance of Keith and Donna Godchaux, undeniably the two most controversial figures in Grateful Dead history, but, here, as on the original Europe ‘72, the mannerisms that by the end of the ‘70s would make the couple almost intolerable in the context of the Dead, are wholly absent. Keith’s keyboards are especially inspired throughout and provide evidence of how he came upon the gig in the first place.
The downside of the collection, and one thing that has long angered this writer, is the abuse that Garcia inflicted upon his beautiful voice. When he possessed full power of that fine instrument – see “Tennessee Jed” from the original Europe ‘72 for a prime example – his ability to move the listener was infinite. When that amazing voice was compromised – such as on the opening “Bertha” here, where he sounds a little road weary – it’s hard to listen to the damage done to such a fragile but integral element of the Dead’s music and not feel a little cheated.
In the end, the first collection here is more sure-fire than the second: aside from a fairly strong reading of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”, the second disc wallows in subpar performances and suffers from a mix that is occasionally zero dimensional. Aside from their rarity, the Bickershaw tracks are hit-and-miss and, although perhaps of interest to completists, those seeking the real power and awe of the Dead are best advised to look toward the first Europe ‘72 album or several of the aforementioned archival recordings from the era. Like many sequels, this one also disappoints, but maybe that’s also part of its charm. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I have to place an order for the Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings boxed set. No matter what, it seems I just can’t get enough of the Dead.