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Critic's pick: Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead

Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978

Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 4: From Egypt With Love

It wouldn't be Halloween without newly unearthed music from the Grateful Dead. This fall, the excavation goes deep and far to when Jerry Garcia and company played three open air concerts in Cairo with the Great Pyramid and Sphinx looming over the jams.

These performances, given in August 1978, have long been fabled stuff among Dead Heads. In the wake of nearly a year's worth of logistical, business and governmental wrangling, the resulting concerts were staged, filmed and recorded.

But capturing the wonder of the Dead in Egypt was not to be. Technical glitches ruined recordings of the first show and much of the second while the band's performances throughout the run were generally deemed unspectacular.

"The sad fact is, we didn't play well," wrote Dead bassist Phil Lesh in his 2005 book, Searching for the Sound. "The recordings we'd counted on for an album to partially defray the costs of the expedition turned out to be useless."

Well, not entirely. Three decades later, Rhino has issued much of the remaining Egypt concerts, along with a DVD, titled Rocking the Cradle. Within these performances, there is caution, even in the way guitarist Bob Weir's I Need a Miracle sets up the Dead's usually rollicking cover of It's All Over Now and Garcia's groove hearty Deal. They are still lovely to listen to, but the mood is reserved, almost timid by Dead standards.

But the seemingly unplanned subtlety brings out all kinds of colors in Stagger Lee, which was still an unreleased tune (the Dead's version of it, that is) at the time.

The highlight, though, comes when Egyptian percussionist Hamza El Din and the Nubian Youth Choir jam with the Dead for a seven-minute, cross-continental, cross-cultural summit called Ollin Arageed, which, in turn, bleeds into 14 more minutes of Dead drummer Mickey Hart's Fire on the Mountain.

The DVD captures 97 minutes of footage from the second and third nights in Cairo (with the Ollin Arageed/Fire on the Mountain medley again stealing the show). It also boasts the home movie-style The Vacation Tapes — a primitive but very fun postcard of the Dead crew in the land of the Pharaohs.

While Rocking the Cradle offers an immensely likeable, if not modestly flawed, glimpse of the Dead in an altogether other time and place, From Egypt With Love reveals the band in full fury.

Part of the Dead's Road Trips series (available thru, the latter album provides glimpses into a pair of home turf concerts at San Francisco's Winterland Arena two months after the Egypt shows. There is no comparison in terms of performance, especially when it comes to previews of Stagger Lee, I Need a Miracle, Fire on the Mountain and The Rascals' Good Lovin' (the latter is featured on a free bonus disc of Winterland music offered with From Egypt with Love) that would be released that November on the Dead's 10th studio album, Shakedown Street.

There are a few bumps in the recording, as when vocals fade into echo on the opening Sugaree. But there is compensatory fire in older Dead jams (a trim, eight-minute revision of The Other One) and generous flashes of Garcia's folkish fancy on Peggy-O. El Din also journeys from Egypt to reprise Ollin Arageed, which is paired this time with Deal.

Here it all is. Over 30 years after this music was made, but just in time for Halloween, we have four reconstituted nights of the living Dead.