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The Grateful Dead Unveil Giant Box Set: 'Europe '72'

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The Grateful Dead performing in 1972.
The Grateful Dead performing in 1972.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

In the spring of 1972, the Grateful Dead exported their unique concert experience – transformed American roots and Fillmore-dance-party daring – to Europe for the first time, playing 22 concerts in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and even Luxembourg. The trip was first documented that year on a triple-LP set, Europe '72, with substantial vocal overdubs. But this fall, the Dead and Rhino Records will release a huge and lavish box set of more than 60 CDs containing every show of the Europe '72 tour, mixed and mastered from the original 16-track tapes. The project, still in production, will be a strictly limited edition and available by pre-order from the Dead's website.

"There were so many reasons to do this," says producer David Lemieux. "There isn't a bad night. There isn't even a bad set. Every song was played so well."

Dead Reach Back to Legendary 1972 Tour for Massive Box Set

 "We were hot and having a lot of fun," agrees guitarist Bob Weir. "We had a pretty plump repertoire by that time. So you're gonna go several nights before you hear a repeat. And if you hear one, it's going to be pretty different."

The Europe '72 tour would be the Dead's last with founding singer-organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, then ailing from a liver condition. He died the following year. The European shows were also a major showcase for new pianist Keith Godchaux, who joined in late 1971. "This is the point where he really plugged in," says bassist Phil Lesh. "This was another voice for us." And the Dead debuted a wealth of new originals at these shows, including the future live staples "Tennessee Jed" and "He's Gone," both written by guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter.

"The main entrée for us was the new stuff," says Weir, "and whatever we could bring out of the old ones like 'Dark Star' and 'The Other One.' Every time those songs came around, there was a new passage that was meaningful to us."

Weir and Lesh, who currently tour as Furthur, spoke at length about the Europe '72 tour and box for a story in the current issue. Here are additional memories from those interviews:

Bob Weir: "We had hot hands, and the music was flowing"

In Europe, you took the Bay Area music experience to people who knew it mostly by reputation.

What was enticing about that tour was the audience. We knew they would come. But we knew it was with fresh ears, and we were ready for fresh ears. In Sioux Falls, they were coming for a rock show. In Europe, they didn't know exactly what they were coming for, but they had heard it was kind of like jazz.

How would you describe the state of the Dead on that tour?

We were playing so much that we had hot hands. Our heads were loose, our hearts were open and the music was flowing. If the acoustical ambience on stage was working for us – if everyone's instruments sounded good and there wasn't a lot of feedback to overcome – we were bound to have a good time. Once we established a groove, we would work it for awhile, take it wherever it wanted to go, let it take us wherever it wanted to go.

One thing in particular occurs to me: For that tour, everybody was pretty damn clear. Unlike in America, you couldn't get pot over there. They had hashish. and nobody liked it much. So there wasn't a lot of smoking going on. The crew were big drinkers, but the guys in the band were not. All we had was the music.

It is fascinating to hear Jerry's playing, especially in his longer solos. It is improvisation but with a true sense of purpose and poise.

Jerry had discovered a couple of books, with scales in them, and he was starting to  crack that nut. He also had a couple of books written by jazz guys, writing about the art of developing a solo: stating themes, exploring them, tieing them back together.

 It was a directed exploring.

Yeah. It wasn't a bunch of straight-up blues licks. And if Jerry stated a theme, our job was to counter it in some way, work with and against it, to create tension and find the release. There was a story being told there.

Pigpen sounds strong and determined in his featured numbers. But was it hard to watch his energy and contributions ebbing away during that tour?

He'd cut his drinking back a whole bunch. What took him down was a congenital situation. We were just beginning to get the drift of that. There wasn't much anybody could say or do, so we didn't dwell on it.

Keith and [his wife, singer] Donna were just finding their way in, finding they had the groove, and that was fresh. I remember on a warm-up gig, on the way to Europe: We had just rocked "Sugar Magnolia", and there was a pause before we went into the coda. I was about to count off the last bit. I looked over at Keith, and he did a fist pump. He'd got it.

It was a new plateau for him, and thusly for us. We had the players. We had our ducks in a row.

Phil Lesh: "We wanted to deliver our message"

You had been a working band for seven years when you toured Europe for the first time. What were you expecting?

 We weren't sure how what we did would travel. It is a uniquely American experience. But there are some great memories: riding the ferry from Newcastle to Copenhagen; the double rainbow we saw while riding in the bus through Switzerland. I had grown up with classical music, steeping myself in European  culture since I was eight years old. But to be plopped down in the middle of – all of the cultural history that preceded the United States – was wonderful. It was suspicion confirmed: These are the roots of our culture. And I think that made us play better. We wanted to deliver our message,

There is a consistent pacing to these shows. The first set is more song-based, grounded in roots. By the second set, the flying kicks in – the long spells in "Dark Star" and "The Other One." Was it a way of acclimating the Europeans to your dynamics and ambitions in performance?

This is probably when we evolved the two-set format, which we kept pretty much to the end. The first set is one song after another – Jerry, Bob, Jerry, Bob – then gets crazier in the second set. But it never felt like we were talking down to the people. We were trying to retain the improvisational fervor from the late Sixties and apply it to these neat little songs everybody was coming up with. If there was a concept, that was it.

And you have to understand – none of this was ever talked about: "Oh, let's do this. Let's do that." When we're out there, things start happening, ideas pop out and we all pounce on it. Forethought was never a big factor with the Grateful Dead. I can say that unequivocally.

The Europe '72 tour was also known for the Bozos and the Bolos, the two camps in the Dead's touring party, depending on which bus you were on.

The Tivoli in Copenhagen –– that was the show where we put on the Bozo [the Clown] masks. There was no reason, just because we had them. One of the guys in the crew got 'em.

Which bus did you ride? Were you a Bozo or a Bolo?

I was on the Bolo bus. You got more sleep on that one. Most of the roadies were Bozos. Jerry and Bob were on that bus. Pigpen was on the Bolo bus with me.

Could you switch from one bus to another?

You could, but not many people did. Nobody ever got off the Bozo bus.

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David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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