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Published: 2008/09/28
by Brian Ferdman

Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978

Rhino R2 512959

In September of 1978, after months of meticulous planning and laborious inter-governmental negotiations, the Grateful Dead and their entourage traveled to Egypt to play a couple of concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramid in Giza. The cultural significance of this event cannot be understated, as Egypt, like almost all Middle Eastern nations at the time, had rather poor relations with the West. An Egyptian performance of this nature with an iconoclastic Western rock band like the Dead was unprecedented and quite a sight for the locals on camelback. Little did everyone know that while these concerts were happening, secret negotiations were concluding at Camp David, creating an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.

Despite the historical and cultural significance of these shows, the Egyptian concerts have never been treated with reverence by Deadheads— and for good reason. 1978 was anything but a high water mark for this band, as personal demons and a lifestyle of excess began to take their toll. Musically speaking, a thin sound pervades from Bob Weir's tinny guitar tone to Keith Godchaux's sparse synthesizer, and superabundance is rampant in Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart's clunky, overloaded drumbeats. Even the venerable Jerry Garcia, appearing here wearing some silly pigtails, is somewhat off his game, which isn't surprising considering that around this time period, he made his first forays into the substances that would slowly erode the remainder of his life. Only Phil Lesh seems to have it together, bopping across the frets and creating improvised basslines with glee. That being said, he does let the wheels completely fall off the bus as "Good Lovin'" breaks down in a very sloppy ending.

So if the music isn't all that and a dish of tabouli, why release a package of the best from these concerts? Well, many a Deadhead has often wondered what these shows were like, and now the DVD can provide a bit of an answer. Unfortunately, the mediocre quality of the video leaves much to be desired and looks rather lame in comparison to the re-mastered sound. Moreover, the greatest weakness of the video is the missing perspective. Because the Dead were playing on a makeshift stage at the base of the Great Pyramid, close-up and wide-angle stage shots don’t really show enough of the scenery to make it apparent that we’re in front of a 50-story structure that is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Without a static, far-reaching mastershot from long-distance, you just never see the enormity of this massive architectural spectacle. In some amusing late 1970s editing, shots of both the pyramid and the sphinx are superimposed over shots of the band, but these efforts still do not do the show justice. The video seems to be more of a slap-dash, last-second effort from another era, and it culls together camerawork of various degrees of quality from less than standard angles, although it does a fine job of capturing the radiant glee of the dancing Deadheads and curious onlookers in the audience. On the positive side, one of the most interesting songs ever played by the Dead was the Hamza el Din-led “Olin Arageed,” which is displayed here in it’s full glory. A large contingent of Egyptian singers and drummers chant this tune while Garcia and company jam away behind it in the most inspired moment of these shows, leading directly into an excellent “Fire on the Mountain.”

Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978 is sold as a single DVD and double CD combination set, and those who order online will also get a third bonus CD. The packaging for this set is quite innovative and fun, as it unfolds into a three-dimensional model of the pyramids with a very Grateful Dead theme. Also, not to be overlooked is the bonus DVD featurette, “The Vacation Tapes.” Culled from home movies, this collection of silent clips (set against recordings from the concerts) shows Ken Kesey, Bill Graham, Bill Walton, and the colorful cast of characters in the crew both building the stage and relaxing in Egyptian luxury. It also shows the band as they travel around the country, sailing the Nile River and enjoying the sights of the countryside.

With such a treasure trove of fine recordings of exceptional performances to draw upon, it is rare when the Grateful Dead strikes out on a new release, but that’s not quite what has happened here. Rather, this release is somewhat hindered by performances that are mostly average, at best, but the set has been enhanced by the fine packaging and bonus features and discs. While Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978 is far from the greatest example of the Grateful Dead’s live prowess, it does showcase a very interesting moment in this band’s history.

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