Friday, 4 July 2008
Grateful Dead "Wake Of The Flood" (1973) (Revised Review 2015; Originally 'Core' Review #59)
On which the Dead can’t keep back the tide turning in their favour, however melancholy they sound…
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo/ Let Me Sing Your Blues Away/ Row Jimmy/ Stella Blue// Here Comes Sunshine/ Eyes OF The World/ Weather Report Suite: Prelude/ Part 1/ Part 2 (Let It Grow) ( UK and tracklisting) US
"Only two things in this world I love, that's rocking and rolling my turtle dove"
Even more than with other bands, they say that the period of the Dead you meet the first is the one that you fall in love with. Whether it's the psychedelic Dead of 1968, the mellow American Dead of 1970, the jazzy Dead of 1975 or the poppy and popular Dead of 1987 there's a fanbase for all of these and every era in between. 'Wake Of The Flood' was the stop on the bus where I first got on and while 'Anthem Of The Sun' may be more courageous, 'Live/Dead' more original and 'American Beauty' might be better all round there's a case to be made that this overlooked laidback gem is my real favourite (though of course that idea of a 'favourite' does change to whatever Dead album happens to be playing at any one time). Other albums shout louder, with frenetic jaw-dropping jams and so much going on that you can't help but applaud but even with so many other gems in the catalogue Wake Of The Flood has some sort of hypnotic pulse that keeps making me return to it. Having just released two time-filling double and triple live albums, you could be forgiven for thinking that 'Wake Of The Flood' was going to be the grand return to making studio albums and that's partly true in the sense that there are more elaborate and denser textures in this record than most previous albums. However many fans at the time were disappointed by how low-key everything is, with a volume that rarely rises above a whisper and arrangements that tend to favour meditation over rocking out. Understated and spaced out, even for a Dead record, with no real rockers and three-and-a-half- pure ballads, this record would appear to feature nothing recognizably Dead-ish, no feedback, no guitar solos, not even the ensemble harmonies of American Beauty. However as a mood piece it may well beat all of these, running to the beat of its own drum (which is, after all, what the Dead are all about over everything else).
Recorded in the highly turbulent atmosphere of 1973, 'Wake Of The Flood' is a whole string of hellos and goodbyes, neatly coming at the halfway point of the Dead's 'official' canon (we're fourteen discs down with fourteen still to come if you're reading this in order). For starters it was the first album to be made after the death of Pigpen and despite his waning contributions over the years the first to be made without his input at all. The much-missed hard-drinking hard-living but still at the heart of it deeply gentle soul passed away on March 3rd that year from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage brought on by a lifetime of hard drinking - some four months before this album came out and right while they were making it. While there are no real Pigpen moments on this album (and only Keith Godchaux's 'Let Me Sing Your Blues Away' comes close to blues, although it's really more like folk) in many ways this is the 'last' Pigpen album, with the singer a kind of honorary member whose clearly on everyone's minds when they were coming up with the songs. Keith and wife Donna have of course been a member of the Dead since 1971, joining specifically to take the weight off Pigpen but the Dead's slow progress throughout the 1970s means that this is their first studio Dead LP. While the Dead as a whole were generally a much more potent beast live, the ability to go back and perfect things really suits the Godchauxs, with Keith not only receiving his one and only non-band credit with the Dead but having his piano play a far bigger role in the sound of this album than perhaps any other. He plays some truly delightful half rhythmical, half melodious keyboard runs, washing the rest of the band’s performance through with some sort of magical, colourful glue; Donna too makes much more sense as part of the band sound here than her occasionally off-key live vocals and her blend with Bob is an especially perfect fit (this album's 'Here Comes Sunshine' is perhaps the best example across the whole Dead canon of the Jerry/Bob/Donna/Phil vocal collective).
Another new addition to the Dead folklore is the fact that 'Flood' is the first release on the much-discussed new record label the band set up to escape the restrictions of being on Warner Brothers (honestly how did that awkward relationship survive thirteen albums?) Pushed for by friend and businessman Ron Rakow to do what The Beatles' Apple had tried, the original intentions were to completely revolutionise the record industry by ignoring shops and distributors altogether for shopping centres and even ice cream trucks (the motto of the company was said by Garcia to be that compared to Warner Brothers 'even fumbling around in the dark we must be able to do better'; alas the idea got scaled back more and more until the Dead were just a record company like any other (the fact that Lenny Hart had just run off with the band's money and left them broke for the second time in four years didn't help matters much). However only the Dead could have coped with what happened next: on this record's release a string of counterfeit copies of it were pressed and sold to record shops; in the end the Dead struggled so much to make sense of it all they even worked with the FBI to target these illegal sales (now that's an 'odd couple' partnership if ever there was one!) Fittingly the company logo of Grateful Dead Records is not a skeleton as you might expect but a court jester and a cawing crow, an image long associated with death, doom and gloom (and one sufficiently recognisable enough to give Ted Hughes, that most amateur of professional poets, a whole career without him having to do any other work whatsoever). In total four albums will be released on the label, up to 1976's live album 'Steal Your Face', although the Dead will also create the more experimental spin-off label 'Rounder' for a whole cornucopia of weird solo albums over the next few years (including bleeping noises by Garcia, Spidergawp, thunderous drumming across an entire album and whatever the hell the Phil Lesh produced Ned Lagin album 'Seastones' is all about!)
Perhaps because of all the problems that were happening for the band across 1973 Wake Of The Flood is in many ways the most melancholy Grateful Dead album, especially the first side which is just full of mournful ballads of varying speeds without a break. Throughout the album there's a theme of impending disaster, from the title on down (a phrase that crops up in 'Here Comes Sunshine', lyricist Bob Hunter's memory of a devastating flood in Vanport in 1949 that's one of his early memories). Elsewhere on the album the narrator of 'Mississippi' is born with an unlucky mark that means his life is doomed before he ever lives it, 'Stella Blue' is one of Garcia's more fragile characters full of 'broken dreams and vanished years', while Weir's 'Weather Report Suite' has images of winter arriving and the blossom and promises of Spring dying out. The heavy last few years - drug busts, robbery, Altamont, Pigpen, the stress of the new label and fighting Warner Brothers - is clearly taking a toll. The theme of the record? 'You ain't got half of what you thought you had'. Yet for all that and despite the fact that 'Flood' hits these realities more head-on that most passive-aggressive Dead LPs, 'Wake Of The Flood' isn't a depressing album at all. That memory of the flood waters rising is actually a happy memory, Hunter remembering with awe how the adults of the whole town he grew up in seemed to come together to overcome the force of nature and put things right. Stella Blue's fears are put right by 'the song' that always appears at 'the end' when things seem to be at their worst (Keith's 'Let Me Sing Your Blues Away' make a similar point). 'Eyes Of The World' gently urges the listener that however ignored they feel they are still part of a living breathing happening world and their vision of life and the experiences they have are unique. 'Weather Report Suite' ends with an entire second half that urges the seeds of something to 'grow' for the future, that even in a time of anxious uncertainty life can grow if nurtured properly. 'Row Jimmy' urges to keep on rowing whatever life has to throw at us because the destination will come eventually, however many wrong turns we take in life. Even the sad tired victim of 'Mississippi' finds sanctity at his journey's end, reaching the River Jordan where everything seems to right itself (and the song suddenly lurches from minor key to major in the one of the greatest key changes ever, turning the saddest song ever into a crowd sinaglong). Listening to 'Wake Of The Flood' is always a therapeutic experience, a highly recommended record for those times in your life when all the good things seemed to get washed away and a reminder that your spirit can't be easily extinguished, however badly life tests your patience. Like the sun suddenly streaming in after a nasty storm 'Wake Of The Flood' has the power to make life seem better, but unlike some happy-smiley albums that do the same trick, you know that the writers behind this album have been through these same unhappy experiences too and that they mean what they say when they note how they struggled to navigate their way to happier waters.
Another view of this album is that all the narrators on this album seem to be struggling against something much bigger than they are, with most of these songs leaving the characters' fates in the hands of others or occasionally something bigger than mankind can fathom. Sometimes this creates cruelty and injustice, as per 'Mississipi' where the narrator is marked from the day he's born, ending up in a familiar sequence of pulling 'bad cards' from the deck of fate. Sometimes, as per the flood in 'Here Comes Sunshine', it's a chance for everyone to realise what matters, that a shock to the system can be good for it as long as no irreparable damage is done. 'Weather Report Suite' too hints that mankind is doomed to be buffeted and blown by the seasons of good luck and bad, with each shaping his outlook on life. Contrasting with this 'Eyes Of The World' claims that everyone can take charge of their fate, that it doesn't have to be decided for us and can be turned round. Notably, all of these characters seem to find some sort of redemption by the end of their respective songs, even if it only comes after digging deep and overcoming overwhelming odds. There is additionally a secondary theme of ‘water’ running through this album that might tie in to this idea. Sometimes the currents of life are ferocious, as per the flood that wrecks a whole town. Sometimes the sea can be healing, as per the glorious sight of the River Grande that greets the narrator of 'Mississippi' and marks the moment his life turns around. Sometimes it's the surface across which we must travel without drowning along the way as per 'Row Jimmy'. And sometimes waters are healing and necessary to life as per Steve Vance's album cover (where a Medieval farmer harvests their crop, to the backdrop of a sea which looms behind him threateningly even though it was the sea's power and the rain it caused that made the crops grow in the first place; incidentally check out the 'cloud' on the album cover if you haven't noticed already - it turns out to be a skull if you hold the sleeve the right way round!)
All this watery emotion means that the songs on 'Flood' particularly suit Garcia’s voice (he takes most of the lead vocals on this album) and especially his guitar playing, which have always had a touch of this melancholy-sighing-but-belief-it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end about him (the same is true of most of The Kinks' Katalogue, where we've named this the 'short term pessimism long term optimism effect'). I've always considered Jerry's guitar phrases much closer to the sound of ‘crying’ than other famous guitarist who either channel their anger (Neil Young), their spiritual ideals (George Harrison) or their restlessness creativity (Dave Davies) and whole that's particularly true of the 'pedal steel years' the songs on this album suit him even more. Garcia always does his best to wrap a big-brotherly arm around the listener with his work, which is technically impressive but hardly flashy like most guitar heroes, emotionally warm and almost solemn in its slow meander round a song’s range of chords and harmonics. As for writing colleague Robert Hunter, rarely had the two been quite so in tune, with Hunter rushing to his friend's aid as all sorts of problems seem to befall the group. His lyrics for this record are amongst his best work, more 'human' than normal without the interruptions of old outlaws, rogue Alligators or Terrapins and they've clearly been worked at over and over (in comparison to some of the more rushed Dead albums to come). Along with his song with Keith Godchaux Hunter gets six credits on this seven song album - more than any of the band - and is particularly responsible for the texture of this album, poetic and esoteric without sacrificing their sighing, yearning emotion and the ring of believable truth. It's easy to believe that these are songs that have been lived and experienced first hand, rather than seen through the eyes of a made up character however well drawn (only 'Stella Blue' refers to another character and for all we know she might be Garcia; the pair often wrote about one another). There are so many quotable lyrics on this record: 'What's the point of calling shots when you're cue ain't straight in line?' 'That's the way it's been in town ever since they pulled the jukebox down' 'Dust off those rusty strings just one more time' 'Ain't got time to call your soul a critic' 'Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own'. A lot of fans have their favourite Hunter lyric; along with 'Terrapin Station' and 'Ripple' the I'd have to pick the lesser known 'Row Jimmy', a song that's always in motion with the character variously walking on air, dancing and falling over in his greed for money ('Two bit piece don't buy no more, well not so much as it's done before') along his journey to get to the other side that has to be judged just right ('Not too fast and not too slow').
That line sums up this record nicely, actually, a work that judges everything just right. The Dead often wrote their best material under their biggest pressures and with all of that going on in the background, you could forgive this album for sounding more rushed than normal. However for all its hidden sorrow this album is actually laidback, lazy and warm, full of slow-burning epics and ballads so delicate in places they test your hearing to the limit as to whether anything is actually there at all. Oddly, though, not many of the songs on this album are that well known - while many of these songs were played often in concert (200 times - not actually that much for the Dead) only 'Eyes Of The World' became what you might call a set regular. This is particularly odd given that - unusually - pretty much all these songs had already been heard in concert at least once before the release of the record. Perhaps the songs were just too slow or too tied in with this particular era - or perhaps they were too hard to play. Whatever the reason, 'Flood' has become one of those albums that casual fans tend to overlook, without any of the singalong classics they know off by heart from the concerts or even that much of the famous band interaction that only the Dead can pull off.
However Wake Of The Flood is still dominated by all the facets that made the old Dead great: the Garcia-Hunter writing partnership dominates this album like never before, creating five of it’s lengthy seven tracks; Bob Weir turns in one of his best-loved compositions that shows off a ridiculous range of moods and style in its 12-minutes and the rhythm section of Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann turn in some of their more sensitive parts, empathetic with the rest of the band but ploughing their own merry road seemingly without a care for the songs’ tempo or rhythm. However 'Wake' also has a sound all of its own: more elaborate than the records before it, but not as elaborate and slick as the ones to come, it plays out to its own speed and finds its own rhythms, the Dead album that most reflects the Dead philosophy of being happy to be different, if you will (after all 1973 was the year of glam rock and bring noisy; while the Dead barely ever took notice of what the 'outside world' was up to this record is further away from what was in the top 40 than most). The sad part is that the Dead never really tried an album like this again; while parts of the next album 'From The Mars Hotel' try something similar (especially 'China Doll' which would have made a fine fit on this record) no other Dead album has quite this same mix of pathos, suffering and hope or the feeling that whenever you play this record that whatever you're going through here comes sunshine, at long last.
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo does its best to be solemn, despite sporting a silly title and the sort of tack-piano that should be propping up a bar in some Western saloon. Featuring another of Garcia-Hunter’s telephone directory-sized list of ‘loser’ characters, this time the narrator is cursed not from mistakes he was forced into by other people but through the unfortunate timing of his birth. An outcast from the day he was born, Garcia’s frustrated narrator sounds on the edge of tears throughout, always a beat or two behind the song’s stumbling riff as if to enforce his outcast nature, and the song finds him leaving his home-town only to find his problems follow him wherever he goes (‘all you got to live for is what you’ve left behind’). Lots of Hunter’s usual gangster-films-come-biblical references litter this song, but as ever they’re tied up so cleverly and full of such unusual rhythms and rhymes they really do catch the ear, from snooker terminology (‘this cue aint straight in line and the cue balls made of styrofoam’) to past tales of man taking others for a ride (‘They say that Cain caught Abel rolling loaded dice’). Garcia’s sighing vocal, weak and vulnerable but striving to be stronger, is also one of his best, musically lifting his head up as high as he can only for the song’s down-plunging riff to make him sink downwards once again. All is not lost for the narrator, though, courtesy of the glorious final two minutes. With first Garcia and then the whole band chorus joining in on the line ‘across the grand Rio’ which suddenly comes out of nowhere, the song is suddenly turned on its head and become something of a spiritual, as the narrator finally finds his long-searched for his place of tranquillity, although we never actually find out what delights are waiting for the narrator at his new destination. It could be that the Dead are being somewhat spiritual here: the Mississippi and the Rio Grande do indeed run into each other in 'real life' - is this the symbolism of a mere mortal merging with his maker and becoming something 'bigger' than himself? Or simply a reflection of his having turned a corner and moved on with his life, with the idea that everyone gets a second chance? A gloriously cathartic moment on a record full of little surprises like this, it suddenly makes sense of the rather chugging and lop-sided song that came before it, with the final glorious burst of sunshine on the coda putting everything right. Live Performances: 235
Let Me Sing Your Blues Away is the closest the album comes to a traditional rocker and even this track is more of a walking-paced plod than the sort of blow-the-roof-off all night parties the band had been enjoying live for much of the past eight years. The bluesy horns also make the track sound more like a curious psychedelic big band off-shoot and - great as their riff is – their presence still sounds rather unnecessary and jarring when heard on this track. This is still a good song though, whatever its ridiculed and hated status amongst fans (co-written with Robert Hunter, this is the only song Keith Godchaux ever wrote for the band) and also sports Keith’s one and only vocal during his seven years with the Dead (1972-79) - on this evidence Keith should have done a lot more of both with the band, even if the ingredients haven’t quite mixed together yet. Even higher-pitched than Garcia, he offers just the right contrast between the seriousness and playfulness in Hunter’s words and even if the song is more of a disjointed stream-of-consciousness list than a fully crafted piece of music, it’s a lot better than fans seem to think it is (it’s regularly voted at the bottom end of favourite song lists, which is unfair given the horrors that are on later albums like Shakedown Street and Go To Heaven). That’s Keith’s wife Donna singing the high harmony by the way – formerly an Elvis backing singer, she was a full time member of the band from 1972-79 but doesn’t get an awful lot to do until her last few years with the band. If you like this album, though, check out the almost equally fine Terrapin Station, which has Donna’s fingerprints all over it. Live Performances: More than you think at 16
No song sums up Wake Of The Flood’s perseverance and endurance message more than Row Jimmy, an even slower-tempoed ballad, which is essentially a re-write of traditional folk favourite Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore. With the omnipotent Garcia narrator acting as Jimmy’s best friend, he urges both the troubled spirit and us the listener to move forward and overcome problems for all we are worth because, even if we feel we are going sideways or quite possibly backwards in our lives, the karma we are sowing now means we will all get to the place we deserve by the end of our journey. The Dead don’t sound in any particularly hurry about the journey either, conjuring up a languid jaunt on the river rather than a race to the finish, despite the feeling that Jimmy is urged on so many times he surely has hole in the side of his boat from paddling so hard. Most of Hunter’s lyrics for this song are downright peculiar even for him - but so strong is the message (and so repetitive the chorus) that we get their gist anyway. Jimmy keeps being distracted from his true purpose in life by lots of worldly distractions (‘here’s a half a dollar if you dare…’) and upsets along the way (‘You aint got half of what you thought you had’) that his narrator keeps warning him away from - but the narrator’s not cross, just supportive. Sporting a simple gorgeous tune, on first hearing this track sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a summer stroll down the river – until you hear the rumbling bass and keyboard work paddling for all they are worth underneath the surface. In truth, there’s not much happening musically in this song – aside from a curious croaking frog effect running deep in the mix! – putting the emphasis firmly on Garcia’s fatherly vocal and some fine band harmonies. The sudden change into a major key in the last chorus, suggesting optimistically that Jimmy does indeed make it through his problems, is another one of those key Dead moments that make a good song sound great. Live Performances: 269
After Row Jimmy, you’d expect something a bit more uptempo from the Dead, but no - Stella Blue is more delicate balladry, sounding more like a coda than a separate song in its own right despite this song’s status as a true Dead classic. Garcia is at his most fragile here, singing and playing so quietly it’s a strain to hear him or the rest of the Dead playing at their most subdued, but the ethereal tune is so hauntingly gorgeous and beautiful that despite the bare-bones ‘skeleton’ mix there’s more than enough happening to get the job done. Hunter’s spacey lyrics are perhaps the most characteristically Dead on the album – they sound at first hearing like a traditional love song, but if they are they seem to be dedicated to the muse of music and the Stella brand of guitars rather than any person – with lots of imagery mixing the literary and the down-to-earth, the future ‘could-be’ and the present ‘is’, with angels plucking guitar strings and nights spent in cheap run-down hotels contrasted against the never-ending magic created by the music these travelling musicians play. My take on this song has always been that Hunter is writing about Jerry directly here (a device he uses elsewhere - see 'Althea'; especially), upset at seeing his fragile friend so devastated after Pigpen's death and feeling miserable in some 'cheap hotel' after years of relatively good living on the road, urging him to 'dust off those rusty strings just one more time'. The song even has a pause after this line and the next ('Can't help for trying') as if Garcia is pausing to try to work out a proper answer. This song wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a collection of madrigals, such is the old-fashioned folky feel of Stella Blue. However, the band aren’t finished yet: after such a low-key start to the album this song’s sudden eruption into towering emotion and irascibility in the middle eight, with Garcia bemoaning the idea of having to stay in such mundane surroundings to make his personal contribution to something so powerful and fulfilling as music, suddenly sounds huge and is another of the career-best moments of the Dead’s huge canon. Live Performances: 235
Side two features the band at their most popish on the walking-paced Here Comes Sunshine. The gorgeous full sky-circling harmonies on the chorus – with new band member Donna Godchaux to the fore – sound more like the Beach Boys than the Dead and this sudden burst of sunshine, all two repeated lines of it, is still enough to counteract the rather downbeat verses about thinking you are never going to get anywhere. Many intelligent fans compare this song to The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun, but actually it’s a close cousin of George’s solo song Blow Away (see album review no 75), as both songs have the same basic chord progression and walking pace riff as well as a similarly downbeat verse-joyous chorus structure. Partly inspired by a Washington flood that lyricist Hunter remembered from his childhood, its panicky lyrics (‘Don’t just stand there dreaming! Get out of the way!’) have been diluted by the passage of time into an entertaining anecdote and so laidback is the delivery that it seems as if this is Robert Hunter telling us about this event some 24 years on, safe in the knowledge that no matter how bad things get there is always the chance of a recovery because he knows the town is put together again not long after the event. Terribly pertinent to the band’s troubled year of 1973, this song’s tale of re-birth and recovery after massive problems was originally dropped from the Dead’s live repertoire not long after release – unlike many of these songs which were concert favourites right up until Garcia’s last shows in 1995 – but was revived in a terrific near a capella form by new keyboardist Vince Welnick in the early 90s, after he had recorded the song with his own band. A sweet song, quite unlike any other in the Dead’s canon, this song deserves to be better remembered, both for its cautious lyrics and its hopeful life-affirming chorus. A special note on the multi-tracked synthesiser riff at the end of this recording too – with such a strong mid-60s image its hard to forget that the Dead were just as pioneering as their peers when it came to new sounds in the 70s and 80s. Live Performances: 66
Eyes Of The World is the band’s earliest attempt at doing full-out modern jazz and is even more successful than the much-heralded later attempts on Blues For Allah. This sound of hopping-from-foot-to-foot nervous energy seems to suit a group like the Dead, who’ve always been into playing their own individual thing rather than being a traditional ‘band’ sticking to the same arrangement night after night and this song finds the perfect balance between the looseness of the band at their best and some stunningly arranged intricate harmonies over the top. The choppy guitar riff in the song is one of their best too, with Garcia simply unable to keep to the song in hand, so caught up is he in the possibilities opened up by the song’s jagged rhythms that allow his guitar to dart round them like a knitting needle, sewing up acres of glorious decorations, buttons and ribbons while the others get on with the steady job of making a woolly jumper. Phil Lesh makes an all too rare break-out on bass at the song’s end too, as if he’s suddenly remembered he was meant to be knitting the sleeves. It’s Hunter’s typically cryptic lyrics that steal the show, though – uplifting and joyous without being specific, the narrator’s urging us to wake up and experience life anew suits Garcia’s joyous melody like a glove and sounds great fun to sing too. This latest set of Hunter-spun wisdom tells us that we are a glorious part of nature to go with all the other glories we see around us (or ‘You ain’t got time to call your soul a critic’, as Hunter puts it) and returns again to the theme of karma from Row Jimmy, with salvation eventually coming against all odds, as ‘the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom’, with each of us able to wake up one day in the future and find our perfect life waiting for us from then on. If that world really is perfect, perhaps they have this album on a permanent loop? Live Performances: 380
The album closes with Bob Weir’s epic 12-minute Weather Report Suite. Most critics and even some fans see it as one of the more self-indulgent things the band ever did, separated into a medley of three parts, but it’s actually one of their most impressive ‘band’ efforts. With these distinct pieces linked by nothing other than mood, it starts off with the band at their folky, delicate best and gradually builds up layer by layer through the second until ending with a terrific rocky brass solo in the third. The opening two-minute instrumental is particularly gorgeous, returning to the band’s brief sojourn into madrigal territory. Part One is in much the same vein, with Garcia’s electric sighs now joining Weir’s languid acoustic picking while the one-off set of lyrics from fellow folkie Eric Anderssen are a delight and almost as Dead-like as Hunter’s, recalling Sugar Magnolia in their tale of a spirit urchin focussing the narrator’s attention on the changing seasons around him. Again there’s a theme of overcoming battles here, with Weir returning to Here Comes Sunshine with the refrain ‘we’ll see Summer by and by’, even though a heavy frost lies on the ground. Trying to understand what coded messages might lie in nature, the narrator questions why seasons should change at all and why mankind cannot have stability, but ‘the answer came – with wind and rain’ being the only - rather unwelcome – constant in nature’s cycles. Like many a song built on the changes of the season, the narrator’s newfound love seems to last forever, but clichéd as it is this section still contains plenty of memorable and inventive images (‘’you’ll see summer again, like a song that’s born to soar the sky’) and a fine, sensitive, laidback acoustic tune. Weir’s vocal is impressive too, losing much of the harder-edged sound he used for most Dead records of the 70s (where he rather unfairly typecast himself as the band’s ‘heavy rocker’ – one listen to the delightful baroque-like instrumental Sage And Spirit from Blues For Allah soon puts that image right!)
The final, best-known section Let It Grow (which starts at the 5:37 point on the CD) finds Weir back with his usual writing partner John Barlow and is far more typical of the pair’s work, sounding far more urgent and desperate than before without ever quite shrugging off the earlier section’s muted slumber. Weir sings his heart out on this one, exploring the narrator’s relationship with his new found lady even more, making it sound like a ‘natural’ event equitable to the romances of nature he can see going on around him and the final section’s proud chant of ‘I am’ sounds like a truly transcendent moment as the narrator suddenly realises his true purpose in life. The narrator even sees mankind as subservient somehow to nature’s needs (‘seasons round, creatures great and small, up and down as we rise and fall’) and comes to terms with the fact that his relationship probably won’t last forever - that passing moments is what the changing nature of the earth is all about anyway and that stability is a man-made thing, not a natural one. The tune, based on thundering guitar-riffs (Garcia sounds at his most energetic on this track) and rolling twinkling piano keys, is another delight and is itself full of hefty changes, lurching from section to section as the mood takes the players. There’s even a fake ending, with the band gradually winding the song down bit by bit, in contrast to the wild saxophone clinging on to the end of the song and trying to push it on just a few notes more, one of many classic arrangement touches on this album. In all, this is one of Bob Weir’s finest moments with the band, pulling off a song epic that would have done Garcia and Hunter proud had they written it and it’s a testament to his writing strengths that this long song doesn’t overstay its welcome by even the smallest of amounts. Live Performances: 51 for the whole suite, with another 236 for the 'Let It Grow' part on it's own
Like the rest of the album, this song is a mile away from the Dead’s simple jugband-bluesy roots and Wake Of The Flood is probably their pinnacle as a hard-working, innovative band before they got cold feet and decided to go commercial on their late 70s and 80s albums. A huge mistake for the most part, anyone could have made the Dead’s later records (well, maybe not the title tracks of Blues For Allah or Terrapin Station!) but nobody else has ever made such a unique and distinctive album as this one ever again. Wake Of The Flood is perhaps too subtle to be remembered as one of the Dead’s all time ‘classics’, rarely getting mentioned in the same breath as earlier pioneering albums like Live/Dead and Aoxomoxoa even though in its own seet way this album, too, is deeply experimental and its mainly pastoral loveliness is as far away from the band’s earlier image as its possible to get. It may be an album of understated ballads that are precious and fragile for the most part, but somehow the Grateful Dead have never sounded more ‘alive’ than they do here either. Goodness knows there are a lot of other Dead albums out there that are great too - but Wake Of The Flood is something special, never going quite where you expect it too and with each song offering something special to make it a cut above the ordinary.
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