on the Way/Slipknot! 2) Franklin’s Tower 3) King Solomon’s Marbles 4)
The Music Never Stopped 5) Crazy Fingers 6) Sage & Spirit 7) Blues
for Allah/Sand Castles & Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert
Ladies and Gentlemen,
welcome to the Grateful Dead. This is the studio album where the Dead fully form
their sound. If you had never heard any of their previous albums, but had heard
of the Dead’s reputation of being a trippy jamming band—“Blues For Allah” would be exactly
as you’d expect. It has three instrumentals, spacey jams, crazy fills and
sounds like a soundtrack to some mellow hippie movie.
With this album,
the Dead draw a line in the sand and dare their original audience to follow, and the amazing thing is, they do. The Deadheads are renown for their loyalty, yet “Blues For Allah” is so far removed
from “American Beauty” and even “From the Mars Hotel” that it should have
made the original followers puke. You see, the Dead in 1965-1970 played their
own version of overlong country/rock songs, which were heavily acoustic. Pigpen
sang his fair share of vocals and was arguably the “star” on stage. Because
of the music, the lyrics, and Pigpen himself, the band attracted good ole’ country loving, beer drinkin’ rednecks.
But the band didn’t
stay true to their style. They kept expanding their music, adding new instruments
and sophisticated production, until they created a new, “progressive country” sound. The rednecks in the 60s/70s were not beyond getting high now and then and would smoke at the concerts. The dope and the nature of the times attracted flower people, and as the Dead’s
audience became more stoned, so did their music (perhaps the drugs and the spirit of the sixties mellowed the rednecks into
being more friendly and accepting of the hippie intruders as well). The hippies
liked spacey jams to guide them on their trips and the Dead were happy to oblige. The
original fans didn’t leave because the evolution of the music was so gradual, that the rednecks just went along for
the ride. So even when Pigpen died, the band did not lose any followers because
they had all transformed together and created a new fan of a new music: the Deadhead.
(If I lost you in above description
it’s probably because my writing is so terrible, or because you are not American.
As most of these reviews state, the Dead were an American band, and while obviously can be enjoyed in any country,
cannot fully be understood unless you understand American culture).
On to the music…”Help
on the Way” is a great song and a stellar way to start the album. It
sounds like a cross between folk and funk and is just so close to perfect. This
is the best song here and one of the Dead’s overall classics. What a great
tune! The instrumental “Slipknot!” follows and proves the
Dead were into freeform jazz. It is unnecessary, but provides a nice segue into
the jovial “Franklin’s Tower.” Another classic song
(although I prefer the faster versions represented on many live albums), this has the repetitive “Roll Away the Dew”
chorus and is just so happy it makes you want to get up and dance. The lyrics
are just there and, in fact, this is one of Hunter’s worst albums. In “Franklin’s
Tower,” as on the entire album, the words aren’t bad and do offer some interesting imagery, but ultimately
don’t provide many of the memorable lines that Hunter is known for.
Solomon’s Marbles” is next and is a 5-minute jazz instrumental. If
you like jazz or the Dead’s jamming, you’ll love it, but I got bored pretty quickly on it (not that it doesn’t
try its ass off to be exciting though). “The Music Never Stopped”
is far from Weir's best work. It continues “Help On The Way’s”
funk-folk mix, but to a pathetic result. It sounds like Bob’s trying to
write a Stevie Wonder song, but just can’t match Wonder’s amazing grace.
Even nice backing vocals by Donna Godchaux and good guitar/sax interplay at the coda can’t rescue this tune.
Fingers” sounds like it was left off of “Wake of the Flood.”
On that album, its slow, bouncy rhythm would have been better appreciated, but here it is out of place and completely
overlong at 7 minutes. “Sage & Spirit” is a polished and
beautiful instrumental from Weir. Definitely a highlight (and one of his all
time best offerings), it is sure to make you hit the repeat button to listen to the interplay of instruments (particularly
the flute) a few times over.
for Allah” closes the album and sounds like it was left off of Pink Floyd’s “Piper at the Gates of
Dawn.” It is pretty interesting, but I doubt you’ll ever listen
to it more than once. Just spacey music for a spacey audience! (I know the lyrics
are supposed to be a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who was assassinated just prior to the recording of this album
in 1975—but they are abstract to say the least). It does have cool crickets
in the middle and the more you hear it, the more you will actually like it, particularly the ending “Unusual Occurrences
in the Desert” portion. But can you imagine this song on “Workingman’s
Dead?” Actually, could you imagine this song anywhere else?
All in all, I’m not the biggest fan of this
album. It still gets a 7½ though because of the two classics “Franklin’s
Tower” and “Help on the Way,” and because the more you listen to it the more it grows on you. In fact, after my first complete listen for the purposes of reviewing it, I gave it
a 6½. Listened to it again and gave it a seven, and then one more time for the
7½ it has now. I didn’t try a fourth because it might rise again. That’s yet another reason why the Dead are so well loved—their music really
does grab you, and who knows, maybe this will be the album that won’t let you go.