Blues For Allah

Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead Records, 1975

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


1976 represented a major turning point for The Grateful Dead. Having "retired" in 1974, they played a whopping four dates in 1975 - some of which were invitation only - that brought great excitement to the Deadheads. Were Jerry Garcia and crew ready to return to form - and to the concert stage?

The answers started to come in a show that was later immortalized on One From The Vault, a CD of one of the 1975 shows in San Francisco. Throughout the show, the Dead played new material that would eventually become their 1976 studio album Blues For Allah. (The show at the Great American Music Hall, by the way, represented one of the very few times that "Blues For Allah" itself would ever be played live.)

In one sense, Blues For Allah represented some of the most exciting music that the Dead ever recorded, merging the worlds of jazz and rock together seamlessly. In another sense, the disc had examples of what can happen when a musical idea is carried too far.

The highlight of this disc for me will always be the three-song suite (really listed as two tracks), "Help On The Way / Slipknot!" and "Franklin's Tower". There is something about this song that never fails to put a smile on my face and can always raise my spirits when they've sunk low. Granted, I would take a live version of this song suite over the studio effort at times, but there are points in it, especially during "Help On The Way," that have never sounded cleaner.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The jazz influences continue with the instrumental "King Solomon's Marbles," another song you can divide into two parts. The 7/4 rhythm used for a good portion of the song (it might be used throughout the track, but I had a hard time keeping the beat for an extended period of time) provides a friendly challenge to the listener, almost as if the band was saying, "Try and keep up with us!" Musically, it's a great game of tag that's wonderful fun.

One other track which I occasionally find myself drawn to is "Crazy Fingers," another track that has reached higher levels for me thanks to the numerous live versions I've heard over the years. Garcia's gentle combination of vocals and his guitar lines transcends the mere pop sound of the song and brings the listener to a whole new level - even without the help of any substances, if you get my drift.

So far, it might seem that Blues For Allah is an album that can do no wrong. Hold on there, sprout. While the Dead have always been a band to push the musical envelope, when you hear the 12-minute epic "Blues For Allah," you might wonder if they didn't push the envelope over the side of a cliff. The first part of the track (which is the actual "Blues For Allah") builds up on an Egyptian rhythm pattern, using only vocals, drums and the occasional guitar lick. At times, it made me feel like I was listening to a Greek chorus from ancient theater - not one of the world's most pleasant experiences. By the time the band gets "Sand Castles & Glass Camels" working, the long, strange trip just becomes strange - too strange, in fact. The more structured closing movement "Unusual Occurrences In The Desert" doesn't help matters or tie things together.

There is one track on Blues For Allah that I'll concede is a matter of personal preference - and that is "The Music Never Stopped". Frankly, the first time I ever heard it was on One From The Vault, and Donna Jean Godchaux's vocals totally ruined it for me. The studio version is a little more controlled, but it's still - at least for me - not one of the Dead's finer moments. (Side note: I heard this song performed live long after Godchaux and her husband Keith left the band in 1979 - and it did sound a little better without their presence. I believe that Brent Mydland took over half the vocal chores - I swear, that guy could have sang the phone book and made it sound funky.)

So what's the final ruling on Blues For Allah? It's still very much a disc that's worth checking out, especially if you want to get past the songs that classic rock stations play to death. But you should be aware that this album is not your typical musical trip - and maybe that's what the Dead wanted to accomplish. Maybe they wanted to shake things up a bit - I just wonder if they shook one too many times.

Rating: B-

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© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Grateful Dead Records, and is used for informational purposes only.