On April 1st, 1972, the Grateful Dead arrived in Britain for the opening dates of their first European tour. The timing was perfect — "the feast of fools," guitarist Bob Weir says, laughing. "There was a challenge for us, playing for people not familiar with what we were up to. But we were ready for fresh ears." More important, "We were hot."
Recordings from that run, which included stops in Germany, France, Denmark and Holland, were issued as a three-LP set, Europe '72 (with extensive vocal overdubs). But even that length barely captured the legendary heft of the Dead's performances: the wealth of new material and the intrepid jamming that often sent "Dark Star" and "The Other One" well past the half-hour mark.
This article appears in the February 3, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive January 21.
In the fall, the tour will be released by Rhino as a limited-edition beast: 22 shows on more than 60 CDs. The lavish set, available by pre-order from the Dead's website, will cost over $400 and is unprecedented even by their archive-box standards. "By the time we're finished, we'll have put two years into this," says producer David Lemieux, who expects mixing and mastering to wrap by June. "If there was ever a tour that needed a complete release, it was Europe '72. It's one of the top three tours the Dead ever did, and there's a pristine 16-track recording of every show. It's the perfect storm."
"I remember that tour clearly," says bassist Phil Lesh, noting that no one in the band had been to Europe before. "In Hamburg, we played in the hall where Brahms played. In Paris, I literally felt the spirits of Chopin and Debussy. I think that made us play better. I remember being on." In Aarhus, Denmark, the Dead appeared in a college cafeteria, unfurling a spaced-dance sequence including "Truckin'," "The Other One" and "Not Fade Away" that lasted more than an hour.
"Someone would catch fire, and that would spread," Weir says. "I'd catch a riff everyone coalesced around. Then someone else would come up with something that took us another way. It was a collective flash — time to move on."
The Dead were in dramatic transition that spring, emboldened by the jazzy ambitions of new pianist Keith Godchaux. "It was amazing how tuned in he was to our music," Lesh says. "In Paris, he played like a god." The European tour was also the Dead's last with ailing singer-organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who died in 1973. "He didn't have as much energy as before," Weir says, "but he was trying his best to deal with it." McKernan sang the funky new "Mr. Charlie," one of his few originals, written with Robert Hunter, at every stop.
Lemieux says other Dead tours deserve full release, such as the fall of '73 and spring 1990: "It's such a diverse band. You can do boxes from '72 and '89 back-to-back, and there's nothing similar about them, except it's Grateful Dead music."
"It all boils down to 'Is there a story there?'" says Weir. "If we can find an era like this, with a story line and development — and I have a feeling there is — there would be merit in doing this again."