Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978 – Grateful Dead
It's an historical document. Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978 captures a time and a place and an innocence that’s never going to be revived. The grand idea of the Grateful Dead playing at the Gizah Sound and Light Theater at the foot of the Great Pyramid in the fall of 1978 was rife with the same hippie idealism of mystical energy combining with art that was a lifeblood of the band members. While the view of the importance of the audience being a component of the musical performance remained, even with stadium-sized crowds, it was the last Grand Experiment that found the group immersed in a social endeavor mainly for their own amusement, rather than a commercial one that kept the mighty train roaring down the tracks. Over the past 30 years, the three performances at Gizah have developed a mythical status not only because of the venue but, particularly, because the members rated the shows so poorly. In Garcia: An American Life, author Blair Jackson quotes Jerry Garcia on the show, “Take a perfect setting. What could be better? What could be more amazing? A total eclipse, a full moon, the Great Pyramid; everything perfect and we went and played shitty."
With the release of this two CD plus DVD set, apparently enough time has passed that a philosophical shrug of the shoulders caused Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann to allow a commercial release from the September 14th through 16th run. (Of note, the feeling that things started off shaky on the first date is emphasized by zero songs culled from the 14th. "Jack Straw" from the 15th starts off disc one with the rest of Rocking the Cradle filled up by the final concert. A bonus disc for pre-orders includes four more numbers from the second night and four from the last.)
Let’s be honest, there’s nothing here that tingles the senses in the same manner that some of the other major Rhino releases has done lately – Winterland 1973, Fillmore West 1969, The Grateful Dead Movie soundtrack. Still, the material here isn’t as shameful as some recalled. As various accounts put it, the band was going through a difficult period due to drug use, innerband turmoil, Kreutzmann drumming with one hand due to a cast on his left appendage and unhappiness with the Shakedown Street sessions. But, as you can hear at the end of “Jack Straw,” there remains excitement and even some relief at making good on the dream becoming a reality. A sense of joy can also be found during the final minutes of “Deal” when Garcia won’t let go of the song’s final line, intensifying the moment with additional repetition.
In such a location, among the cradle of civilization, it would seem to be a perfect spot for the Dead’s most exploratory material. A “Dark Star” or mind-expanding “Space” to commemorate the full moon and lunar eclipse, perhaps? Not here. The only distinctive nods to West-meets-Middle East occurs when the band joins Hamza El Din & Nubian Youth Choir on set two opener, “Ollin Arageed,” which subtly influences “Fire on the Mountain” and “Iko Iko,” and when Weir riffs during “Good Lovin’” – “I don’t care how many wives you’ve got, how many camels you’ve got or how much money you got in the bank, you gotta you’re your lovin’. Everybody gotta have lovin’.” Perhaps, in a Pranskster-ish mood, the band ignored the obvious and chose to rely on more straightforward tunes. “Row Jimmy” has a playfulness but only gives indications of its lengthy reggae journeys, while “I Need A Miracle,” “New, New Minglewood Blues” and “Truckin’” create windstorms of sound. “Stagger Lee” doesn’t have its particular snarl but is solid. I can only guess that the “Bertha > Good Lovin’” opening from the 16th was cut (and relegated to the DVD and bonus disc) in order to fit the music on two discs. Purists will understandably be disappointed, but the transitions are smoothed to give the effect of a full show.
As far as presentation, the folks at Rhino put together a lively fold-out package that features a three-dimensional pop-up representation of the pyramids, sphinx and lunar eclipse. The booklet with an essay by Alan Trist details the machinations to execute the Gizah dates, some behind-the-scenes info on what happened once there and the idea of its lasting effect on Garcia.
The DVD contains a good chunk of footage from the final evening's show. Sure, portions do not look supremely professional. But again, that goes back to the innocence of this excursion. A 21st century trip would find a production crew with a bevy of cameras, fast nausea-inducing edits, corporate sponsors names plastered around the staging area and the requisite crane shot sweeping over the crowd. This gives the impression of home movies taken by fans during the show, and that instills a degree of worthwhile charm, as you watch Garcia in his bushy pigtails, Weir sucking air as the line from "Deal" goes on and on, Lesh shaking his booty, Bedouin men in their robes mimicking the dance movements of their American counterparts. The second portion of the DVD, “The Vacation Tapes," is literally, home movies of the trip. Although the soundtrack lacks a narrator or interviews, it remains a thrill to even catch a glimpse of the activity before and after these shows. One surprising, and major, drawback from the package is the absence of recent interviews recalling that period of time — from the band, crew, Pranksters, Heads in attendance. It's a much-needed addition when dealing with a historical document.