From the Archives

The Dead Rock the Pyramids

Three decades after playing Egypt, band to release legendary gigs

DAVID FRICKEPosted Oct 16, 2008 8:00 AM

Ken Kesey Rides With the Dead

The night before the Grateful Dead's first show at the Giza Sound and Light Theater, at the foot of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, singer-guitarist Bob Weir took a stroll around the open-air venue during soundcheck. "Some of the Egyptian drummers we played with were rehearsing," Weir recalls. "I got to a point where the head of the Sphinx was lined up with the top of the Great Pyramid, all lit up. All of a sudden, I went to this timeless place. The sounds from the stage — they could have been from any time." It was as if, Weir says, "I went into eternity."

In comparison, the Dead thought that the shows — near Cairo, Egypt, on September 14th, 15th and 16th, 1978 — were less than timeless, sabotaged by technical problems and uneven performances. The gigs are more legendary for the setting: the cosmic bluesmen from San Francisco playing at one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

But a new release changes that. Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978, issued by Grateful Dead/Rhino, collects the best songs from that run, mostly from the third night, on two CDs. An accompanying DVD has 90 minutes of concert footage from that superb third show, which the Dead performed under a full lunar eclipse. "There was some mediocre music played," admits the album's producer, David Lemieux. "This set doesn't have that."

What it has are strong, jubilant versions of live standards such as "Deal" and "New, New Minglewood Blues" and energetic previews of songs from the Dead's next studio album, Shakedown Street. In one stunning sequence, the group veers from a jam with the Nubian oud player Hamza El Din into the mystic march "Fire on the Mountain" and the New Orleans party song "Iko Iko." The Dead were "jet-lagged to the hilt," Weir says. "Maybe we played on autopilot better than we thought." For Lemieux, an in-house tape archivist for the Dead for many years, there is no maybe. At times in Egypt, the band, he says, "was as good as the Dead got in 1978, which was pretty darn good."

The trip was classic Dead anarchy: An equipment truck got stuck in sand and had to be towed by camels. The band rented 24-track recording gear from the Who, intending to get a live album from the gigs. But electricity in Cairo was, Weir says, "a winkin', blinkin' affair." On the first-night tapes, vocals were distorted or missing. Strangely, while the Dead traveled with a huge entourage ("40 to 50 people," Weir estimates), they didn't bring a film crew. The DVD combines video shot by a friend of the band and local TV crews. A bonus feature, "The Vacation Tapes," is Super-8 reels of the band touring the Pyramids and local temples. "But the DVD shows how much fun they had," Lemieux says. "You see Jerry in pigtails, strumming like Pete Townshend, so animated."

You also see many delighted locals "boogieing their butts off," Weir says. One day, walking in the village of Giza, he met a family that invited him to breakfast. In return, he invited the clan to see the Dead. "And they came," Weir says. "I imagine it was for them as profoundly amazing as it was for us to be there.

[From Issue 1063 — October 16, 2008]

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