Friday, June 12, 2020

Grateful Dead 13: Blues For Allah

For too many reasons to document here, the Dead had taken an extended break from live performance—as a unit, anyway. But with their own record label and distribution, they used the studio to experiment, ably blending songs with exploration on Blues For Allah. (Mickey Hart was also back in the fold, having left a few years earlier after his dad ran off with a pile of the band’s money.)
“Help On The Way” exudes a certain mysticism in the guitars and electric piano, going into the intricate jam of “Slipknot!” Before you know it, they’ve found their way to “Franklin’s Tower”, a two-chord slow boogie best known for its “roll away the dew” chorus. “King Solomon’s Marbles” is a two-part instrumental with dizzying time changes; the “Stronger Than Dirt” portion gets its title from the same rhythmic suggestion of the Doors’ “Touch Me”, while “Milkin’ The Turkey” would suggest a bluegrass influence that isn’t there. “The Music Never Stopped” would be a middling Bob Weir trifle, except that it once again features Donna Godchaux prominently, sinking it for these ears.
Side two is even more esoteric. “Crazy Fingers” has a reggae lilt, and plenty of organ, destined to become a live favorite over the last decade of the band’s run. Weir redeems himself with the lovely Bach-flavored instrumental “Sage & Spirit”, featuring a roadie from Quicksilver Messenger Service on flute. Finally, the lengthy title suite is taxing at first, working very hard to evoke the spirit of Egypt. There’s a moment near the end of the opening section where Donna’s counterpoint sounds like the middle of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (the “world of secret hungers” part) but eventually it coalesces, crickets poking through the desert winds (really). A melody develops out of all this, and “into eternity” is chanted with Donna wailing past the point of welcome.
While it’s not usually our thing, Blues For Allah is a successful experiment, breaking barriers as well as new ground for the band. But it still sounds like the Dead, and even without an audience for ambience and feedback, they found a way to create. The expanded version of the album is of interest in that context, adding a bunch of instrumental jams recorded few months before the sessions proper, plus “Hollywood Cantata”, a Robert Hunter lyric for a song that would evolve into “The Music Never Stopped”.

Grateful Dead Blues For Allah (1975)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks

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