Wake Of The Flood
Grateful Dead, 1973
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/06/2010
The year 1973 marked a series of major changes for The Grateful Dead. Founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – who had been playing a limited role in the band – died, and new keyboardist Keith Godchaux (along with his vocalist wife Donna) were now part of the group. The Dead had split from Warner Brothers to start their own label, and their musical style was again shifting.
Wake Of The Flood, the first studio release in three years from The Dead (and the first studio album with the Godchauxs) was a definite shift in style, from blues, psychedelia, and country to jazz and slow, plodding ballads. The end result was The Dead’s most disjointed work to date, and one of the worst in their catalog.
I can hear the calls of “blasphemy” from the Deadheads. How, after all, could I call an album that gave us “Eyes Of The World,” “Weather Report Suite,” and “Stella Blue” be anything but a masterpiece? Simple: too many guests spoiling the delicate balance of The Dead’s chemistry (which was already in flux with the keyboardist change), too great a reliance on lugubrious ballads, and an overall muddy sound.
Make no mistake: of the seven songs that make up the initial release of this disc (we’ll get to the bonus tracks in a minute), two of them save this disc from complete worthlessness. “Eyes Of The World” is an absolute tour-de-force that suggests that the jazzy roots of Godchaux – while always somewhat present in Garcia’s playing prior to this – helped to push the group into completely new and exciting territories, which would be further explored in the other two albums that made up “Grateful Dead Mk III.” Likewise, “Weather Report Suite” might not be a track that immediately grabs the listener and makes them realize this is something special, but the way the song develops from a gentle introduction into the wondrous finale of “Let It Grow” continues to push the envelope for the band in excellent ways.
Problem number one comes in with the opening track, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” a number that already was suffering from muddied production work. But while Garcia and crew had slowly been letting friends and musical acquaintances join the sessions – David Grisman’s work on “Ripple” and “Friend Of The Devil” comes to mind, albeit in a positive way – it feels like they threw the doors open and invited anyone to come in on this one. I’m sorry, Vassar Clements’s role in Old & In The Way was important, but the violin just does not fit in with the overall sound of the Dead. I counted a total of ten guest musicians who contributed to the music on Wake Of The Flood (and I’m perfectly willing to concede that I could have not heard similar contributions on “Eyes Of The World” and “Weather Report Suite”), but it just feels like The Dead had become a hootenanny, especially one that didn’t have the greatest songs at its core.
Problem number two was Garcia’s obsession with slow, plodding ballads. This would be a bane of Deadhead’s existences throughout the history of the band, and while including one might have been okay on this disc, hitting the listener with a one-two punch of “Row Jimmy” and “Stella Blue” is the musical equivalent of sleeping pills.
Mistake number three: letting Keith Godchaux sing or actively write songs. There’s a reason he only was the lead vocalist on one song in The Dead’s career, “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away”… the less said about this goose-egg, the better.
Ironically, the 2004 reissue (originally part of the Beyond Description box set) is what saves this disc for me today. Okay, the live version of “Eyes Of The World” might not be the best version out there, but I found it very interesting to hear what I thought were the birth cries of “Help On The Way / Slipknot!” in one of the instrumental breaks. Once again, anyone who thought The Dead moving to a more jazz-oriented feel was a mistake should give this a good, hard listen and realize that, in a way, this is merely an extension of the free-form psychedelia that made up the late ‘60s era of The Dead.
Then, the listener is presented with an acoustic version of “Weather Report Suite,” which gives a whole new insight to the pure musical talent that members of The Dead had (and still do). Hearing this one still in its growing pains (and apparently having no lyrics for the first part of the song) is absolutely fascinating, and this track is simply amazing.
Closing out the reissue is a surprise inclusion – a studio outtake of “China Doll.” Oh, great, I should be thinking – another meandering ballad from Garcia. But seeing this one didn’t come out until the Mars Hotel the next year, its inclusion here is curious, but not out of place. In fact, coming off the pure energy of the acoustic “Weather Report Suite,” it almost feels like the perfect way to close the disc.
While The Dead had added and lost members in their history to this point, they had never completely replaced anyone until Keith Godchaux took over for McKernan, and some growing pains were to be expected in the studio work. Wake Of The Flood is filled with plenty of those growing pains moments, but it also has some powerful flashes of brilliance. If you can sort the two out, it is still worth checking out this particular set.