Monday, 2 March 2015

Grateful Dead "Blues For Allah" (1975)


"Je Suis En Cosmic Charlie"

Grateful Dead "Blues For Allah" (1975)

Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower/King Solomon's Marbles (Stronger Than Dirt > Milkin' The Turkey)/The Music Never Stopped//Crazy Fingers/Sage and Spirit/Blues Fort Allah (Sand Castles and Glass Camels > Unusual Occurrences In The Desert)

"You plant ice, you're gonna harvest wind" or "What good is spilling blood? It will not grow a thing, know the truth must still lie somewhere in between" or "The ships of state sail on mirage and drown in sand" or "Did you hear what I just heard? The music never stopped"

Once again I'm left feeling rather alarmed by how poignant my pre-prepared choice of album review is. As you may know, dear reader, I'm running a few weeks ahead of myself - very handy for a) the weeks when I'm too poorly to work and b) when I suddenly remember something I meant to add to a review I wrote weeks ago. It's come in very handy down the years I can tell you. I sit down to write this review having just witnessed the harrowing week of the French shootings and about an hour after witnessing the thousands-strong march across France by several members of the public, heads of state, patrons of honour, special guests, the world's top politicians - oh and David Cameron. I don't know how this sad story will truly end, I doubt in fact that it will ever have an end by the time this article goes to print in a couple of months' time and I don't know what major shift in world politics this will have. What I do know is that the Grateful Dead saw it all in 1975 judging by the contents of this Muslim-influenced album and it's eerie desperate cried for world peace. And by co-incidence I'd picked out just this album - the most suitable piece in my whole collection - a week ago, three days before the shootings (an obvious choice: I'm just about to start work on my Grateful Dead book proper after a fortnight of Dire Straits and I didn't fancy sitting through 'Shakedown Street', the other Dead record I've got left to cover).  At least twice I've sat down to write this review down the eight-years-this-Easter this site has been running and in that time I've lost this CD once (not that unusual either, but it did delay my plans that week) and woken up with 'Go To Heaven' going round my head the other (so that album naturally took precedence). To be honest I'm getting rather scared now because this keeps happening - a perfect example of what the Dead used to call synchronicity.
The reason 'Blues For Allah' is partly so apt because it is, from the title down, a predominantly Muslim record (the only AAA one until Cat Stevens turns into Yusuf on 'An Other Cup') - and yet it's subject matter is more world than local politics. The scenery isn't Americana, cowboys, convicts and 'wharf rats' - it's sand, deserts, camels and Arabian Winds, which is unusual to say the least. However much more than this, the album also happens to be a eulogy for lost innocent souls, the poor people who weren't responsible but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when evil was in the neighbourhood - the title track, for instance, being inspired by the assassination of Arabian King Faisai, a Grateful Dead fan no less, who was murdered by his own nephew in a still-befuddled-sounding coup (perhaps, too, the band were contemplating their much ballyhooed concert at the foot of the Geeat Pyramids of Egypt in 1978). Other characters are suffering too though: the Dead (or at least their lyricist Robert Hunter) might be telling the band or their whole generation to 'roll away the dew' before they get set in their ways forever, reflects that we can't have everything we want in life on 'Crazy Fingers' and finally lets loose the gates of hell on the title track before the song pleads to put the past wrongs behind us and 'meet as friends' not enemies. Even for the Dead this is a philosophical album, full of stark threats and warnings to communities to stay together, to get along, to remain as equal as human error and frailty will let them - or, in the words of 'Franklin's Tower', 'if you plant ice you're going to harvest wind' - the Arabian winds of injustice when communities become scattered, voices go unheard and views are left unrepresented. That's the Wednesday and Friday shootings taken care of then, but more than that this album covers the Sunday peaceful protests too, the requiems for the lost cartoonists who were only doing their job and perhaps even the gunmen who thought the world was laughing at them, rather than laughing at everybody. Throughout the tough times help is only a united musical march away: the first side is bookended by two songs that promise 'help on the way' and suggest that it's never too late for peace to reign - that 'the music never stopped'. There you have it: a threat, a warning, a struggle and a vow to make things better all in the course of one album (though heard in a rather jumbled up order, I must confess). To be honest this album couldn't have been more perfect had the Dead song 'France' appeared on this record instead of 'Shakedown Street' in two albums' time or had the Dead re-recorded 'Cosmic Charlie' as 'Je Sui En Cosmic Charlie' for a hidden bonus track. What some of time-travelling cosmically aware path could the Dead have possibly be on to make such music?
Actually, for perhaps the only time in their long thirty years history, the Dead weren't up to much at all. The music had all but stopped, after a year long hiatus agreed to long before that had seen them 'retire' after a series of shows at the Winterland in October 1974 (and the 'From The Mars Hotel' album released that June) without any promise about when, if ever, they were coming back. The band were simply tired out, fed up of the endless tour-album-tour-album-tour cycle that had seen them play at least one gig every two months during their first decade together. The Dead, at last, had money after their Grateful Dead Records company had finally got off the ground (and they'd all recovered from the unfortunate incident with Mickey Hart's manager father running off with all their money in 1970) and the group were itching to indulge themselves with a series of actually fairly rum solo albums ('Compliments Of Garcia' 'Keith and Donna' 'Seastones') that suggested the group were indeed burnt out and running low on ideas. Even when the band met back up with each other and tentatively agreed to a reunion they were clear about what they didn't want to do: a record that sounded just like where they'd been before. They even recorded this album in relative secrecy, hiding out at Bob Weir's home studio rather than publicising this fact to fans and drawing the process out (as per 'Mars Hotel').  For the first time ever the Dead went into these sessions without any songs up their sleeves, with nothing bar the odd guitar phrase and a few favourite keys they fancied jamming in. All the songs that appear on this album came about from the band jamming together, throwing out ideas and seeing what would stick, eventually ending up with seven very different sounds (two of them, plus large portions of another two, being instrumentals - the highest proportion ever on a Dead album).
As a result this is the one last time (except perhaps for the title track of 'terrapin Station') where the Dead reach beyond their usual limits and push the boundaries of what they can do - the last time they've given up caring about their listeners and aren't worried that fans will be left behind. 'Allah' may be Eastern European in imagery but it's distinctly Western jazz in texture and feel. For the first time since the trilogy of 'Anthem Of The Sun' 'Aoxomoxoa' and 'Live/Dead' the band make the most of their unique setup - their ability to play 'like the five fingers of one hand' in improvised telepathic synchronisation - and simply let the music (or at least their sub-conscious') play. The Dead infamously struggled to get their loose live sound onto a studio record without it sounding sloppy, but 'Allah' is the closest; the opening twelve minute trilogy is arguably the greatest example of extended jamming inside a studio, while the lighter, shorter instrumental 'Sage and Spirit' is lesser known but just as delightful, proving how many styles there were in the Dead's box of styles. Even the 'songs' were written in a hurry, which makes sense when you hear the rambling second half of the title track or the comparatively straightforward reggae of 'Crazy Fingers' (not one of Jerry Garcia's most inspired songs) but is extraordinarily impressive when you consider that poor Bob Hunter had the hardest task of all. Invited down to the studio but incredibly bored after one jamming session after another, Hunter generally had to write his lyrics for four of the album's seven songs in a tearing hurry so the band could re-record and mould their jamming sessions to fit. Whilst Hunter worried about them (and 'Crazy Fingers' is a long way from his finest hour) this album is actually a poetic tour de force, full of haiku-like quotable phrases throughout that, rather than telling an American folk tale as usual, pick up on something mystical and other-worldly. While not quite on a par with the stoned philosophy of the 'Dark Star/St Stephen/That's It For The Other One' trilogy of the late sixties these songs are certainly sharper and more original than his work for 'Mars Hotel'. In other words keeping the band on their toes largely pays off.
For instance where 'Mars Hotel' really was just a collection of songs, no matter how hard we tried to tie them into something, one of the themes that crops up across the record a lot is one of things taking seed. There's a lot of cause and effect across this album and the feeling that mankind's fate is in his own hands (not those of any God from any religion) which makes for a refreshing change, the grooving instrumental 'Slipknot' linking tales of disaster and hope as if the two are binded inescapably; we start off in 'Help On The Way' with Paradise, portrayed as an angel, growing bored at waiting for the day she's meant to come and usher in a new era for mankind. The band cook away at their loopy riff but get further and further away from the source with each passing thread, all disappearing down different keys to the point where most bands would have to stop and try again, but this is the Dead and they launch neatly into the punchline of 'Franklin's Tower', that the breeze of change is awaiting inside us all once our life lessons are learnt, no longer 'blind all the time we were learning to see'. 'The Music Never Stopped' is Weir and John Barlow's take on the theme and the band's hiatus: an un-named group come to town, everybody jives and has a great time and unites in the name of peace and harmony - and suddenly the band disappear. Were they ever really here at all? Or did the people have a nice time because of the feeling of peace they brought with them? Garci/Hunter's 'Crazy Fingers' is, by contrast, something of a weather report (was it inspired by Weir's 'Weather Report Suite' from 1973?) with a loved one's every move alternating depending on their mood, like meteorological phenomena. However the second half of the song seems to fit the album's overall style: the feeling that change is inevitable and bittersweet, that old civilisations will always topple in favour of new ones and that we should stop worrying about it and let it go, enjoying the 'ride'. And then, like a mirage shimmering in the distance, arrives the impenetrable title track, an Egyptian ode to death that sounds as if it's a jumbled up collection of un-translated hieroglyphics, each one offering its own story. Throughout the song's lyrics religious imagery (both Muslim and Christian) is sprinkled, the significance of a 'ship of state' (a ship of fools?) setting sail because it blindly believes that everything is safe, when really it is drifting on sand, beached by the true suffering of those underneath those in power. Oh and crickets, lots of crickets, as gathered up by Mickey Hart in a box and brought into the studio where they left to perform a big microphone - even though no one is quite sure why (the band let them 'go' in a ceremony after the session which took place in the back of Weir's garden, nearby to the studio - where their off-spring still chirp merrily away to this day!)
Ah yes, Mickey Hart: if you've been reading these reviews in chronological order then - boy your eyes must be tires by now, put this article down and get some sleep! But you'll also know of course that the Dead have been a drummer short ever since the sad events of 1971 when his own father Lenny ran away with the band's takings without his son's knowledge, Though the band remained supportive and friendly and didn't want Mickey to leave (few of the bands I've researched for Alan's Album Archives have as many happy stories and as few sad ones as the Dead, nor indeed as fun to be in, despite the sadly premature deaths of three members down the years) Mickey's heart wasn't in it anymore and he took a three sabbatical, surprising but pleasing many fans when he suddenly returned for the final pre-retirement Winterland show in 1974. By now he's a permanent member again and will be for the rest of the Dead's long strange trip. However, rarely will Hart play as key a role on the Dead's music as he does here, providing all sorts of unusual percussion instruments and sound effects in addition to the two-way drumming that sounds especially strong on the opening trilogy (to his credit too, Billy Kreutzmann whose been epic behind the drums the past few albums simply slots back into their old shared routine no questions asked, as if it's been hours since he last played like this not years). Sadly, though, nobody told the printers at Warner Brothers that Hart was back in the band (very Dead, that) so his face is missing from the distinctive 'carved' plaque on the back of the album cover (representing bottom row, left to right, a young looking Weir, a very furry looking Garcia and a surfing look for Billy, plus top row, left to right, a professorial looking Keith Godchaux, a scary looking Donna Godchaux and a hopelessly failed attempt to get Phil Lesh's likeness). From this album on Donna is also counted as a full-tine member, after 'guest appearances' on 'Wake Of The Flood' and 'From The Mars Hotel' and she even gets her first writing credit as part of the title track. For now her vocals still don't have that much impact on the overall sound but her gospel background (working with Elvis in the early 70s amongst other session work) comes in handy on 'The Music Never Stopped'. Her career as a foil to Bob in particular starts here as the band start to use her distinctive sound more and more.
Overall then, despite the familiar looking fiddle-playing skeleton on the front cover, 'Blues For Allah' is unusual territory for the Dead. The band have taken a big big gamble, completely restructuring their sound and ending up with an album that's their loosest and most rambling 1969. Surprisingly most of the critics and a majority of their fans took to this album straight away, even with its less radio friendly air and unfashionable title (many of the reviews I've read keep 'apologising' for the title for some reason, though surely the epitome of freedom of speech is the Dead playing whatever music they like to whatever God they choose; certainly there's nothing blasphemous here; nothing to frighten anybody away whether you're of the Muslim religion or afraid of people who are). By and large this move is a success: the 'Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower' trilogy is genuinely thrilling, in a way that however lovely poignant and beautiful the last batch of Dead records before this were you couldn't say about any record since 'Live/Dead'. 'Sage and Spirit' too is lovely, the folkier side of Bob Weir coming to the fore again in a delightful dance that adds a Medieval flavour to the album (taking us back to the Crusades perhaps - surely more of a cause for reprisals against Christians than any cartoon could ever be, though it's been all but airbrushed out of history). Nothing here is truly bad, although the title track is a good five minutes too long and seems to carry on simply because the band haven't worked out an ending for the song yet.
However newcomer fans might feel disappointed that such an apparent 'classic' album's legacy rests basically on the opening three songs, two variable instrumentals, two so-so 'regular' songs and a crazy paving title track that infuriates as much as it thrills. As is so often the case with the Dead, the music performed here is simply too new and shiny too: the rough edges added by a few months on the road will do wonders for all this material (even the scant three performances of the title track sound better, while there are some truly mind-blowing 'Help/Slipknot/Franklin's around on the many archive CD releases that make even this studio lion sound like a kitten). The end verdict? The rest certainly did the Grateful Dead the world of good, they're back to sparking on all levels and when poor Bob Hunter is given enough time he's coming up with some jaw-dropping lyrics we haven't seen the like and consistency of since the prolific year of 1970. However this comeback feels slightly rushed and is often aimless, a week or two of jamming and three or four excellent new songs away from being the all-out classic it's often held to be. While I play all the Dead albums in relatively frequent rotation this certainly isn't the record of theirs I choose to play that often: it's left-field curve-balls are sometimes hard to navigate even when you know they're coming and your patience can be tested in a way that no other band would dare to so often or so comprehensively (can you imagine a band releasing a rambling aimless song like 'Blues For Allah' nowadays, and not just because of the political/religious climate?) In truth this is the continuation of a patchy run of albums started by 'Mars Hotel' and which will continue for the rest of the Dead's studio career, with very-good, almost-great albums that are scuppered by a few mistakes along the way. Still, if this band were perfect they wouldn't be the Dead and they certainly wouldn't be living this dangerously as late as ten years into their career, with 'Blues For Allah' at times sparkling with the fire and energy of a band just starting out. Wise and courageous in equal measure, they don't make album like this one anymore - which is a tragedy (especially the way things are this week), even with the odd dodgy five minutes or so. Under eternity, blue.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Before we start on the songs proper, how come all the CD re-issues index 'Help On The Way/Slipknot' as one track and 'Franklin's Tower' as another? Surely this is either a medley of three tracks or three distinct entities depending how you look at it? And in case you were wondering the listing of 'Milkin' The Turkey' as a 'separate' track to 'King Solomon's Marbles' rather than the second half on the original vinyl appears to have been a mistake by Warner Brothers rectified for the CDs. For this review we'll be featuring the first three tracks as individual songs in their own rights - but then treating 'Solomon's and 'Blues For Allah' as one distinct song in many parts, just in case anyone out there is looking up for one part in particular.
Right, after that confusing opening I need help - but thankfully there's 'Help On The Way', perhaps the highlight of the record for me and a marvellous display of what makes the Dead so distinct to other bands. Had any other group of the mid-70s handled this song they'd have made it a straightforward paranoia rocker (the sort of thing Black Sabbath wrote once then endlessly recycled), but the Dead set the sound up with a jazzy backing track that sits for most of the song like a tightly coiled snake before suddenly striking. Not since the 1960s have the band used so many simultaneous yet different ways of reaching the same destination - it's as if the orchestra from 'A Day In The Life' told to make their same way to that final crashing chord were playing throughout the song. With each pass through the riff the narrator is further adrift from home and mankind that bit further away from the 'paradise' that impatiently awaits him. Even though man longs for an intervention from on-high to put the course of nature back into balance, lyricist Robert Hunter is keen to point out where the blame lies - and it's not with the Paradise Angel but man himself. Along the way the narrator pleads for release from the evil world of the present whatever it takes ('Tell me the cost...tell me love is not lost') and realises that only now in true peril does he realise how balanced and favourable the world was before ('Blind all the time I was learning to see'). His conclusion in the last verse is that man has become cynical and stopped believing that he has any right to a happy future, as 'without love in the dream it will never come true'. Garcia's exquisite vocal is spot-on for this troubled nerve-jangling song, as not since 'Wharf Rat' in 1972 has the fragility in his paper-thin voice been more apt, while the rest of the band sound impressively heavy and threatening, each one setting the others off into a panic like a string of dominoes or an internal fight that can never be resolved. No wonder Garcia's guitar is pushed into a screaming pitch of confusion by the end of the song and a quick segue into...
'Slipknot', an even jazzier instrumental which arrives out of nowhere, perfectly named for the fact that it ties two very different songs (with a new mood, theme, tempo and key together quite nicely). Given it's placing in the trio of songs this scary instrumental is clearly meant to signify mankind's dark struggle in the future, finding him falling further and further out of line with the pretty little dance of where he started. Keith Godchaux's doubling of Garcia's feedback-coated brittle guitar lead is particularly strong here, twinkling away as if a chirpier reminder of how great things could have been, while Weir's chunky rhyhm guitar slashes away at them both and Lesh is off in his own world, dragging the song down with a bass-heavy torpor it cannot escape. Funnily enough, though, it was this instrumental that naturally 'grew' into the previous song rather than the other way around - the band can even be heard playing an early version of it during their 'farewell' Winterland shows of 1974 (somehow it turns into the strains of 'Not Fade Away' as heard sandwiched between 'Playin' In The Band' and 'That's It For The Other one' on disc five of the 'Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack). An early version - sadly not released to date - even contained a few hurried Hunter words to it, which scan as if they're meant to follow immediately after the  'Help On The Way' section and once more deal with mankind's unhappy present and how the blame is shared around the modern world ('Beautiful lie, you can pray you can pay till you're buried alive, blackmailer blues, everyone in the room owns a part of the noose, slipknot gig, slipknot gig!') There are still rumours that this part of the song was 'pinched' for the hard rock band of the same name (this is about as close in a frightening sense as the Dead ever come to the full-on scream of heavy metal). Suddenly, alarmingly, some seven minutes in the band finally manage to find their natural way to the end of the phrase that kick-started the howl song off and thanks to a cheeky edit somehow find themselves landing in the happier times of...
'Franklin's Tower', a much happier finale to the trilogy that features wise old professor Garcia telling us that it's never too late to change. Taking it's imagery from lots of ancient sources (Franklin's Tower' itself comes from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, specifically 'Franklin's Tale'  and the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, designed by its builders to reach up to heaven so that mankind could speak firsthand to the angels and speed the process of paradise up; inevitably it collapses before it ever reaches the sky, with God 'dividing all those working on it across several continents with different languages; umm thanks for that!; 'Babel' literally means 'gateway to God' which fits with the lyrics of 'Help On The Way'), it catalogues the fact that many times down the millennia mankind has reached out for help - and yet he's still here, still fighting. Hunter's lyrics praise the heavens for giving 'us' the 'children' who still try to 'ring the bell' that will usher in the golden era (he may well have had the hippies in mind), while Garcia adds a singalong chorus in which everyone can play a part in moving those storm-clouds, that together we can 'roll away the dew'. Given the similarities between this song and one of the Dead's earliest and most popular cover songs (the gorgeous 'Morning Dew', written for the aftermath of an atomic attack) it's not unreasonable to suggest that the setting is the same; that after a war comes peace. Of course the problem of 'Help On The Way' was that no one knew what to do to makes things better - so Hunter adds a new bit of advice that all Dead fans everywhere can salute ('If you get confused, listen to the music play!') The best line though is the stark warning 'if you plant ice, you're gonna harvest wind' - while technically gibberish I and millions of Deadheads know what it means; basically again that 'without love in your heart it will never come true' and that with the wrong motives we're surrounded by buffering heavy storms that bring the cold in from all sides. A clever song with a nice calypso lilt to it (the first of many a Dead song to come with a Caribbean vibe), somehow 'Franklin's Tower' manages to put an end to all the worry of 'Help On The Way' without sounding light or trivial, whilst working as a song in its own right (in concert the band performed this as a standalone piece far more often than they performed the whole trilogy). Even if the riff is stolen wholesale from Stephen Stills' 'Love The One You're With' (which, to be fair, is 'stolen' in turn from a Billy Preston record!) The Dead's return has started with a bang, the best one-two-three punch since 'American Beauty' back in 1970.
Alas from here-on in the band's ambition falls back slightly. The fiery instrumental 'King Solomon's Marbles' is the downside to having all of these songs written effectively on-the-spot. What's odd is that this jazzy atonal jam is actually less interesting or suitable than many of the 'working pieces' that didn't make the album (many of which were added to the CD re-issue after being thought lost for years; the driving eight minute 'Distorto' especially sounds like the basis for a much more interesting and Dead-like song than what we got here). To be fair the moment the band stop playing and suddenly hit the groove for the song's second half (at around 1:55) is delicious, a sign of everything that makes the Dead so, umm, alive. Naming instrumentals is always a dodgy business - most titles are made after the fact and weren't in anyone's mind when they jammed the 'song', but the fact that the Dead are already giving this piece a name that's both biblical and East-European may be significant about how ingrained the two themes are in this album. Solomon (or Salyuman in the Qu'ran) was the King of Israel somewhere around a millennium and one of the few figures to appear in both Christian and Muslim texts. His reign was an unhappy one, resulting in a sp;lit of the kingdom, allegedly as a direct result of worshipping false idols, which fits the theme in neatly with the opening trilogy (was this instrumental originally part of 'Slipknot' - you can imagine how the two might have joined together, although this instrumental as heard here was barely ever performed live). As for the two 'subtitles', 'Stronger Than Dirt' is a sneaky reference to the similarity of one of Garcia's guitar lines to a then-current cleaning commercial that used the same quote in it's adverts and you can't milk a turkey, so don't even try (although the second half foes sound like one of those jerky monochrome early cartoons where all sorts of creatures get molested; seriously that 1920s Mickey Mouse would be in the Operation Yew Tree suspects list today. I always preferred predecessor Oswald The Lucky Rabbit anyway...)
'The Music Never Stopped' offers a softer, gentler end to the album's first side, a lightly jazzy Bob Weir-John Barlow song that sounds like a sequel to 'Playin' In The Band', a postmodern reference to a group that bring joy and delight to a millions-strong crowd of people. However, while 'Playin' (taken from Weir's first album 'Ace') was a view of the Dead from on stage, this one is from the audience - the band were just a mirage, the audience left asking 'were they ever here at all?' Instead, like 'Help' and 'Frnaklin's, the joy and wonder came not from God or even rock-God intervention but from humanity itself. Of course the song works equally well as a tribute to the fans who kept the faith throughout the band's hiatus and a reference to the fact that the Dead and Heads are too tied together to ever truly stop playing. Musically simpler than the other songs on this album, this one always feels slightly out of place - perhaps because it is a 'proper' song with verses and choruses rather than a jam. When heard in concert, usually after a fierce jamming session, it can be a delight played well - here in context of the songs around it the piece sounds slightly insubstantial. The jazzy overdubs with a full orchestra overdubs and Donna at her shrillest (in studio terms at least) also threaten to tip the production of this song over the edge. There's a peculiar mix of styles too: at times this song seems to have the calypso bent of many of the other songs here, at other times it's pure jazz, Billy and Mickey's delightful rat-a-tat intro is pure rock and roll, while the 'c'mon chirren' chorus is pure blues. I like my Dead to bridge styles, but this is arguably at least one too many. All that said, Weir is in sparkling form on the lead vocal, there are some beautiful harmony vocals (especially the wordless float near the end, which rivals CSN) and a nice bit of interplay with Garcia (who leads the last verse in with the intro to each line, 'you know the...' , fitting for this song's themes of unity and democracy). Note too the description of 'the band' as 'Jehovah's favourite choir', adding yet another branch of religion (Jehovah's Witnesses') into this album's dense texture of sources.
'Crazy Fingers' is another actual 'song' song from Garcia and Hunter which might have been a highlight on other albums but what with the fire of the opening trilogy sounds a little one-layered by their standards. The most reggae song in Garcia's long canon of originals, it's  a sleepy little song that coasts in a passive way rather than the force of most of the album's first side, with only Godchaux's remarkable fender rhodes 70s-white-rock-meets-Jamaica playing taking the lead musically (unusual in itself as Godchaux tended to mirror rather than create; this is one of his all-time greatest additions to the Dead studio catalogue). Garcia too turns in one of his better guitar solos, a part that in comparison to his usual jaw-dropping playing makes do with the absolute minimum of notes. Lyrically it's an unusual fit from Hunter, full of haiku-like phrases of irregular metre (8/9/9/3/8/6/4/9/3 syllables per line), as if trying to fit with Garcia's irregaular reggae rhythms - it's a testament to both that they can get away with this without the song seeming daft or making no sense. Unusually too for the pair these lyrics that are about love and the way that the touches from a loved one have such a big impact it seems like they directly impact the weather (funnily enough, a shaggy dog  story about Garcia's death has the guitarist's ghost creating a thunderstorm out of nowhere as his 'farewell', one bad enough to black out most of an entire state for an hour - to this day no one knows what caused it). However even here there's a feeling that the narrator is infatuated and in lust rather than love, sighing 'life may be sweeter for this - I don't know' as if he's already having doubts. Given Jerry's difficult love life at the time Hunter may have been making a sly comment to his old friend here; it was an open secret to everyone except his wife Carolyn aka  'Mountain Girl' that Garcia had recently met up with his old sweetheart Deborah Koons, the start of a double life that will have a major impact on his life and the pair still fight over Garcia's legacy to this day. Notably, for all of this song's very tender and romantic lyrics (Cloud hands reaching at a window, tapping at the window - touch your hair'), the song ends on an unhappy note, the narrator falling down a 'key change' hole that leaves him pondering 'never could reach, it slips away but I...try!' while Garcia's guitar finally stops coasting and starts gnawing away at the song's riff like a dog with a bone. Throughout the song some gorgeous harmonies help soften the blow (Bon and Donna sound especially goof together, with 'Allah' arguably the best vocal-Dead album since 'American Beauty') and all in all the Dead turn in one of their better performance on the album, with Garcia too coping well with the many emotions he'd asked to play. However as a song only that twist at the end really sticks in the melody compared to Garcia and Hunter's vest efforts.
'Sage and Spirit' is a lovely folky instrumental featuring just Weir's twin acoustic guitars, Keith's piano and guest Steve Schuster on flute. The trio sound not unlike a baroque orchestra, with Weir later admitting that he'd written the song as a warm-up exercise before shows to warm his hands up, a more interesting version of playing 'scales'. However as he was learning the guitar part his hotel room was suddenly invaded by the laughing cries of two children, Sage and Spirit, whose dad Rock Scully was the band's road managers. Most of the Dead band and key crew's children were generally given free reign (Pigpen, famously, worked as an unpaid babysitter for most of Haight Ashbury, given that he was the only not high on illicit substances all the time!) and were as welcome in Bob's room as anywhere else. Bob, still trying to work on his scales, heard their laughing and gentle pillow-fighting as a pair of flutes working in and out of the sound he was trying to create and so added them into the song. Featured just twice live (odd for a band who played practically everything they did on stage, however unloved), it's a shame that 'Sage and Spirit' didn't gain a second life in the band's acoustic set - it's a pretty and pretty valiant attempt at trying something different that comes off very well. The flutes especially are a welcome addition to the Dead's dense array of textures, whole the retro Medieval flair of the backing seems entirely fitting for an album that quotes wholesale from the Bible and Qur'an and it's a pity we never hear their like again. Listen out for a brief scary passage near the end where someone (Garcia?) can be heard talking underneath the song.
The album's lengthy finale piece is 'Blues For Allah' itself, a scarier re-write of the opening trilogy. This time the world Governments have 'set sail on sand' beaching any chance at world unity. A call to prayer for the world over, the song pleads with the world to 'meet as friends', with the 'needle's eye' needed to get into heaven 'thinning' (based on the old phrase about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven). I used to think this song was meant as a criticism of the rich and powerful who proclaim religion from the rooftops without actually doing anything charitable with their funds, but the Dead were genuine supporters of Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, at that time one of the richest men in the world (he in turn was the only world leader before Bill Clinton to admit to a passion for the Dead). His sudden unexpected death, at the hands of his own nephew in March 1975 when this album was being made (a death still unexplained - his nephew was later committed to an asylum although many feel this was to prevent him from talking) inspired this song as a 'tribute'. However I'm not sure if 'Blues For Allah' is really a 'tribute' - it is another cry for unity and peace, but here the Dead sound almost threatening, singing over a series of tough dramatic chords that unlike 'Franklin's find no resolution or hope in their desperate struggle. The song makes more sense when you learn that it was based on the 'phrasing' of a song from ancient Egypt - although given that nobody wrote music down in the Egyptian days (I'd love to see a stave filled with hieroglyphics!) I'm not quite sure how that can be (if the band merely based the melody on how the lines run then note how similar these lines are to 'Crazy Fingers' - this could have been a reggae song or a nursery rhyme solely on that basis!) Throughout the band play using a 'planned' system whereby they couldn't play the same note for more than two 'bars' (in as much as a 'bar' means anything when you're improvising over a changing time signature) so that one or other of the band would always be at an uncomfortable 'right angle' to somebody else. While  a natural evolution of the band's live show, it's unnerving to hear a whole song planned like that from the first on record and the results don't really come off (the band later admitted it was 'rushed' as the album needed to be released as soon as possible).
On the one hand the Dead really get the flavour of the desert on this 'song', with its eerie sing-songy nursery-rhyme-turned-bad flavour as heard in many an Arabian Hollywood film and once again the vocal balance is exquisite. However the lengthy atonal middle section is amongst the heaviest going in the Dead's canon (right up there with the 'prologue' and 'Epilogue' in the middle of an otherwise cooking 'Truckin' on 'Europe '72') and the end, while prettier, is deeply dull for the Dead ('Under eternity. Blue' repeated over and over for almost five minutes, while Donna wails unconvincingly). While I happen to like the sound of crickets, I'm also not entirely sure what they're doing here as the noise is more of a Western one (then again, camels and scarab beetles don't really make much of a distinctive noise I suppose). The other 'effect' - Garcia using something called a 'vocal gate' to intone the words 'Allah...Allah' below human ear-shot - also seem a futile gesture, for all the band's talk of ;you can hear the desert saying something but you can't quite hear what it is' talk - instead it just sounds like a band that's fallen to sleep and forgotten what the tune was, for nearly nine whole minutes. The last two-thirds of this 'song' then are a wash-out, which is a great shame for a song that started with such promise. After all, the opening is full of some of Hunter's most striking lyrics (The most quotable lyric here is the one that returns to Franklin's Tower' - the line 'what good is spilling blood? It will not grow a thing' - meaning that revenge and hatred lead to nothing good) and the thought of an Arabian Dead with all their harems, mysticism and skeletons sitting on camels just seems so 'right' somehow. It's just a shame then that only the opening three minutes of this nearly thirteen minute opus is of any real benefit to the Dead canon. Under eternity. Blue.

Overall, then, 'Blue For Allah' is an album you admire more than you love - although the opening trilogy will always have a special place in fans' hearts. We fans love the fact that this band care enough to experiment - although sometimes you wish that the band had more material and more time to experiment so that the parts that don't work can be left on the cutting room floor instead. Rarely on this site have we had to review an album where a mere fraction under half of the total is made up of instrumentals - and yet it helps that a lot of these instrumentals are rather good and that the rest of the material is just about deep and complex enough to carry the rest. Personally I find it fascinating that the Dead should try so hard to break the mould during their comeback and the idea of hearing both the Dead's 'jazz' and 'religious' album is a fascinating one. Given the times that we live in at the moment this album's multi-language multi-faith call to peace the whole world over has also never seemed more suitable or poignant, a clever idea that's reflected well with some of Hunter's greatest lyrics. But taken as a whole, as a listening experience that's merely another album, you have to say that 'Blues For Allah' isn't actually that much more consistent than 'From The Mars Hotel' and a lot less convincing as a whole than 'Wake Of The Flood'. Time shows that rather than the launching pad for a whole new era (where this album's faults could be forgiven that much more), the teething troubles making this record put the band off for good (barring one last try with the title track of 'Terrapin Station', a brilliant song bludgeoned by an epic production) and make 'Blues For Allah' a rather sad one-off, adrift between two of the band's poppier records. Still God loves a tryer so they say (just don't ask which God) and this blues offered up to Allah is one of the hardest attempts to make something only the Grateful Dead could do in the band's whole existence; on those terms alone it's an unqualified success, even if it can't sadly live up to the promise of the exciting opening. 

Other Dead-related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:



'Go To Heaven' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/grateful-dead-go-to-heaven-1980-album.html

'In The Dark' (1987) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2013/12/grateful-dead-in-dark-album-review.html

'Built To Last' (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/news-views-and-music-issue-7-grateful.html





No comments:

Post a Comment