Warner Brothers, 1972
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/23/2010
If Grateful Dead – the previous release and second live album from Jerry Garcia and crew – marked the end of the second phase of the Grateful Dead’s career, the triple-live set Europe ’72 was a transition album for them. If you will, you could consider this disc the only recording (at the time, anyway) of Grateful Dead Mk II.V.
The reasoning for this declaration is that the band was going through a major lineup change. It was difficult enough for them to have lost the services of Mickey Hart the year before, but they knew that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s health was in serious decline. So, while he was still with the band, they brought in the husband and wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux (on piano and vocals, respectively), to further develop the band’s sound.
So, what Europe ’72 ends up being is another collection of tracks that, for the most part, hadn’t been released as studio recordings, intermixed with some favorites of the Deadheads. It also serves both as a farewell for McKernan (who would pass away the following year) and a stylistic change, as Keith Godchaux stuck with the piano as his keyboard of choice, eschewing electronic instrumentation.
This set is, of course, legendary in the eyes of Deadheads. I made the mistake of buying this as the very first Grateful Dead album I ever owned, not being properly schooled in what The Dead were about. Back when I was sixteen, I simply wasn’t ready for what I experienced. But once I understood just who The Dead was and what this set truly captured, I understood that it was a wonderful live set.
Kicking off with an explosive version of “Cumberland Blues,” I truly don’t think I’ve heard a version since then where Garcia’s guitar playing was any hotter or when he sounded more like a rock god with the licks he was playing. There’s a reason this particular version has remained one of my favorite Dead performances ever. Likewise, the one-two punch of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” proves that these tracks were meant to go together like ham and eggs.
In fact, two-thirds of Europe ’72 contain some of The Dead’s greatest work to that point. “Jack Straw” might not be a barn-burner like “Cumberland Blues,” but its gentle opening that builds up into a crescendo of power is a combination that just works well. Likewise, tracks such as “Brown Eyed Woman,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Ramble On Rose,” and “You Win Again” just crackle with power, even if they’re more of a bluesy romp or a country-laced stroll.
McKernan gets his chance to stand in the spotlight one more time with his takes on “Hurts Me Too” and “Mr. Charlie,” the latter being quite possibly one of his most underrated performances. Keeping in mind that I’ve never considered myself in the “cult of Pigpen” in terms of the Dead’s history, it’s his performance on “Mr. Charlie” that does make me think his contributions to the group were sadly minimized in his final years with the band.
It is interesting to note, though, that the reissue of this disc (originally part of the box set The Golden Road) features significantly more music that has McKernan fronting the group. I haven’t quite warmed up to “The Stranger (Two Souls In Communion),” one of the legendary “lost” Dead songs that never got significant play, but it does have its charms that make me want to explore it further. The second CD in the set features a 30-minute “Pigpen” showcase with a medley of “Good Lovin’,” “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks),” and “Who Do You Love” before the medley works its way backwards back into the close of “Good Lovin’.” I can’t say that the inclusion adds anything to the original album, but it does fit well with the overall vibe.
The worlds of The Dead past and future do struggle to coexist on Europe ’72, and this isn’t really a negative. The experimental side of the Dead – last heard in its glory on Live/Dead – is present on “Epilogue” that leads out of a great version of “Truckin’” and “Prelude” that leads into “Morning Dew.” I’m not completely sure if Keith Godchaux had found his place in these free-form jams at this stage, since there is what feels like a little more musical confusion than was normally in what Deadheads have come to know as “Space,” but it’s not unpleasant, either.
Astute readers might note that one of my biggest complaints about Grateful Dead was that it didn’t have the feel of a live album with breaks between the tracks. While they’re present on Europe ’72 as well, here they’re almost expected, as the listener knows they’re not listening to a full concert but rather snapshots of the band’s tour across the continent.