Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead: England '72
Grateful Dead Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/27/2003
There is no doubt that the European tour the Grateful Dead undertook in 1972 was a magical one. If anyone has ever listened to any of the full shows from this period, you do have to admit there was a feeling that something special was happening.
Yet one has to wonder how many times Deadheads have to be reminded of this. After all, two previous releases - Europe '72 and Hundred Year Hall - both were released to serve as audio keepsakes. Now, just in case you haven't figured it out yet, the powers that be have issued Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead, a four-CD set covering a series of shows recorded in England on this same tour.
It's the most comprehensive set to capture this period of the Dead's history. Unfortunately, it's also the most bloated.
During what was essentially the final tour for founding keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, this set turns quite a bit of attention to times when McKernan stepped into the limelight and led the band through blues-soaked jams. At times, the moments captured are something special, as heard on "Chinatown Shuffle" and "The Stranger (Two Souls In Communion)" - but when McKernan is given free reign and the jams stretch longer and longer, the weaker the performances tend to be. Granted, I've never considered myself to be in the "Pigpen" camp when it comes to favoring a specific keyboardist in the Dead's history, but I can't justify 20 minutes of "Good Lovin'," when over half of that is sheer ad-lib padding.
To be fair, though, not every one of the jams in general succeeds either. The version of "Dark Star" captured on this set isn't one of the best I've heard, veering too far into the left lane of improvisation and moving completely away from the core of the song. This isn't to say the Dead couldn't do this successfully - listen to the version on Live/Dead to hear how it could be done right - but this one is particularly tough to sit through.
If anything, the first two discs of Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead are the ones which make you wonder what the purpose of releasing these was. With the exception of a rare live version of "Sitting On Top Of The World" and "Comes A Time," the bulk of this material has already been nailed down successfully on albums like Europe '72 and Grateful Dead (noting the latter wasn't from the Europe tour).
The third disc is where things make a major turn for the better, capturing some solid kinetic energy on the pastiche of songs kicked off with "Truckin'". Had the set started here (or at least had a good amount of the first two discs pruned away), this set would be nearly flawless.
Yet no matter how good some of these performances are - one tends to forget just how good of a guitarist Jerry Garcia really was, or how McKernan and his replacement Keith Godcheaux could gel together in performance - this set finds itself in the shadow of Europe '72. Maybe that's an unfair comparison, looking 30 years between releases, but it is one whose head keeps popping up. For the newcomer to the Dead, this set may overwhelm them, especially if they're not schooled in the spacey jams the Dead became known for. I regrettably find myself filing this as one for the diehards only - and even there, it might not see much action off of the shelves.