My love of the Grateful Dead is a long story, interwoven with family history, a magical childhood discovery of ’60s rock and a narrative immersion in the band’s weird Americana and psychedelia, replete with travel and adventure.
Here I want to offer a hurrah for the Dead’s underappreciated 1973 studio album Wake of the Flood.
Musically imbued with minor-key sadness — it was the Dead’s first album without beloved blues singer, harp-player and organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan — the album is lyrically uplifting. It came on the heels of the band’s greatest triumph to date: the European tour of 1972, which yielded a three-record live album brimming with sparkling originals and inspired covers of Hank Williams and Elmore James. Wake of the Flood takes some stylistic cues from Europe ’72, but also marks a musical pivot to a subtler, more jazzy direction.
“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” the lead track of Wake of the Flood, sounds very much of a piece with “Brown-Eyed Woman” from the previous record. The episodic lyrics and rueful musicality of the two songs evokes the early 20th Century California landscape of John Steinbeck.
The lyrics of “Mississippi Half-Step” set a theme of acceptance and release in response to calamity: “If all you got to live for/ is what you left behind, get yourself a powder charge/ seal that silver mine.” Notably, it’s one of the few songs in the Dead’s repertoire that features the violin, which is played majestically by Vassar Clements, a pal of lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia’s from bluegrass side project Old and In the Way.
“Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” the second track, is the one and only Dead song that featured a lead vocal by pianist Keith Godchaux. The late keyboardist was a singer of limited ability, but here he’s totally committed to the song, a paean to cars, rock and roll, his lady’s walk and good loving. It’s a delightful nugget of New Orleans-style R&B, with a saxophone solo further enriching the album’s instrumental palette.
The reggae-inflected “Row Jimmy” is perhaps the most durable song from the album, having been covered by both the Allman Brothers Band and the Decemberists. The elliptical lyrics can be interpreted any number of ways but suggest themes of forgiveness and grace (“Broken heart don’t feel so bad/ You ain’t got half of what you thought you had”). Unlike most of the Dead’s recorded output, it’s Godchaux’s reverb-laden piano that carries the riff rather than the guitars. Garcia’s and Donna Godchaux’s voices meld gently and affectingly.
“Stella Blue,” the track that ends side Side 1, is Garcia’s most exquisitely rendered ballad. A song about a faded, broken guitar player facing the twilight of his life, the song is preternaturally mature considering Garcia was scarcely 30 years old when he wrote it.
The loose, organic Americana feel of Side 1 shifts to a more a more jazzy, cerebral and conceptual texture on side 2, which opens with “Here Comes Sunshine.” Phil Lesh’s bass never sounded more buoyant or supple. Garcia’s vocals, while more thin than the year before (think of the muscular delivery on “He’s Gone” from Europe ’72) rally survivors to keep faith after the storm. It’s the opening lyric that gives the album its title: “Wake of the flood, laughing water, ’49/ Get out the pans, don’t just stand there dreamin’/ Get out the way, get out the way.”
“Weather Report Suite,” rhythm guitarist Bob Weir’s single contribution to the album is an overwrought, self-indulgent reflection of the worst excesses of ’70s production. Built around Weir’s filigreed acoustic guitar playing, at times it sounds like a Jethro Tull presentation of medieval English folktales and others like a Moody Blues recording session gone off the rails with strings and horn overdubs.
Admittedly, the sentiments in Weir’s magnum opus are also articulated in the lyrics of the preceding two songs by Hunter, albeit with more economy. And truthfully, “Weather Report Suite” is an enjoyable listen, even as it inspires mockery. Besides, every great piece of art requires one flaw to remind you of its humanity.