Blues for Allah contains quite a few surprises, some pleasant (Mickey Hart's reappearance; most of side one) and some embarrassing (most of side two), but at least the Grateful Dead have begun to awaken from the artistic coma they've been in since 1971. With their self-owned and -operated record company fantasies biting the dust due to financially trying times and some decidedly uninteresting releases, the Dead have handed their distribution over to United Artists. They've also abandoned their tired philosophical stetsons and Old West daydreams in search of new frontiers. And though, on the basis of this record, one can't be totally convinced that it's better late than never, still, it's a good try.
All of side one, with the exception of the final track, Bob Weir's ill-placed and tedious "The Music Never Stopped" (yet another "Playing in the Band" variation), works beautifully. It starts with the sadeyed optimism of "Help on the Way," Garcia in fine form both vocally and on lead guitar, then flows into the instrumental "Slipknot!" with stellar playing by the entire band, waxes jaunty with the happy, bouncing "Franklin's Tower" and swings deftly through Latin-flavored, free-form connecting instrumentals, "King Solomon's Marbles" and "Stronger than Dirt or Milkin' the Turkey." The total effect is close to the Grateful Dead as they used to be, circa '68-'70.
To ignore the presence of Mickey Hart on drums and percussion is a failure to realize how much he's been missed by the Dead since his departure after American Beauty. Just why he is the catalyst I'm not quite sure, but when he's adding cowbells, triangles, chimes, bells or a second set of drums, everyone seems to wake up, and Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann and Godchaux romp through side one with neat time changes and interesting jams.
Side two, unfortunately, is a total washout, even if the lengthy suite of "Blues for Allah/Sand Castles & Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert" does shift the band geographically from the Western Plains to the Sahara. Nevertheless, one good side of the Grateful Dead is more good Grateful Dead than I've heard since American Beauty. Keep your fingers crossed.