REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/20/2010
The late ‘70s saw The Grateful Dead’s output labeled as “disco Dead,” with slicker production and beats that tried to fit into the then-current music scene. In fact, what I think you could call “Grateful Dead Mk IV” was a time of struggle and transition, both personally (as the husband-wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux were thisclose to being shown the door) and musically (as they tried to stay relevant a decade into their career).
Shakedown Street, their 1978 effort that was produced by Lowell George (Little Feat), was a painful picture of just how things had disintegrated for Jerry Garcia and crew at this stage in their career. Despite a title track that rightfully won its place in the hearts of Deadheads and rare flashes of inspiration, this album is just a disaster from start to finish.
How else do you explain the group falling back on their history to revisit “Good Lovin’,” a track that they used to perform with original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan providing the blooze-soaked vocals? This disco version had to make Pigpen spin in his grave, as it not only disrespects the group’s history, but also seems to ignore the style in which The Dead used to perform this particular number.
Likewise, the band goes back into its early catalog to present a new take on one of their first songs, “All New Minglewood Blues.” What – they couldn’t think of ten new songs to crank out, so they started rerecording parts of their back catalog? (Thankfully, this idea was short-lived.)
The simple fact is, Shakedown Street does illustrate a band that was in trouble creatively. The two tracks that feature Donna Godchaux, “France” and “From The Heart Of Me,” are pure fluff and filler material that add absolutely nothing to The Dead’s repertoire. The lugubrious ballads that Garcia seemed drawn to – acting like sirens’ songs to mariners – are mercifully kept to only two, but both “Stagger Lee” and “If I Had The World To Give” feel like the musical equivalent of lead weights, further dragging this album down to the abyss.
Even looking towards Bob Weir as the savior doesn’t work this time, as “I Need A Miracle” – gee, aptly titled – fails to deliver. I know this one was a favorite in the live sets, but I’ve never liked this track, and repeated listens to it in reviewing this disc don’t help matters.
Two cuts save
The reissue of this disc (originally part of the Beyond Description box set) is another mixed bag. On one side, the one-two punch of “Ollin Arageed” and “Fire On The Mountain” from the legendary concerts in Egypt were, at the time, the first released tracks from those shows, and dared to suggest that all the stories of the band being “off” at that time were untrue. I especially admit a weakness towards “Ollin Arageed,” which is more of a Hamza El-Din track than The Dead, but it demonstrates just how enjoyable world music can be, even if you can’t understand a word of what was said. (These two tracks are now part of the Rocking The Cradle – Egypt 1978 release.)
On the other hand, did we really need an alternate version of “Good Lovin’” – like the released version wasn’t enough to deal with? The same goes with the live versions of “Stagger Lee” and “All New Minglewood Blues,” neither of which adds anything to either the original tracks or this disc.
Don’t get me wrong, I still crank “