Following the recording of Bob Weir’s solo album, Ace, The Grateful Dead spent the rest of 1972 touring extensively. For many Deadheads this year is a golden age of live performance with some of their most legendary shows. The 22 shows played in Europe are some of the band’s finest and tape traders have spent years discussing the August 27th show in Veneta, Oregon. However, all this touring would impact one member in particular, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Due to Pigpen’s failing health and alcohol abuse, his keyboard duties were minimal and his replacement Keith Godchaux had already been playing with the band. Pigpen played his last show on June 17th, 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl and left the band, dying of congenital biliary cirrhosis. Pigpen passed away in March of 1973 from internal bleeding. This loss would rock the band, but they trucked on, touring until August when they would record their next studio album. Their sixth studio album, Wake of the Flood, was released that October. The album was a step in new direction for the band and their new bandmates, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux.
Side one on Wake of the Flood begins with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” this folk-country jam, though only spanning five minutes, moves and grows much. The track begins with some simple guitar and ragtime piano work from new pianist, Keith Godchaux. The chorus has infectious singing from Jerry Garcia and Donna Jean Godchaux. One new trick the Dead pulled out of their sleeve for the new album was the beautiful country strings throughout the track. The band does a fantastic job of coming out after three years without a studio album (excluding Weir’s Ace), showing how touring with this new iteration has given them a newfound energy. After the expected country tune, the Dead surprise when the next track, “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” comes in. The track is dense with blaring saxophone and jazzy piano playing by Keith. As the verse begins, Keith’s voice is heard for the first time, with Keith being the fifth Grateful Dead member to take lead vocals on a studio track. This jazz-rock fusion song, written by Keith and Robert Hunter, is the Grateful Dead ahead of the curve.
The next track on side one, “Row Jimmy,” slows the pace down after Keith’s raucous coming-out. The track’s melody is lead by Keith’s clav keyboard playing, channeling The Band’s Garth Hudson. The vague Americana-themed lyrics evoke loss and aging; the repeating chorus of “row, row, jimmy, row,” push the listener on that boat back home. The Dead softly transition to the next track, “Stella Blue.” The six minute track contains subtle instrumentation with heavy focus on the harmonies behind Garcia’s vocals. The song’s finest moment comes when it builds to a crescendo in the bridge and Garcia’s pedal steel rips through the melody. Garcia’s somber delivery of the line “Stella Blue” ties the emotion together. Hunter’s lyrics as per usual are open to interpretation, but overall the song seems to be a musician narrator looking back, wishing they would’ve been able to be successful with their songs, deciding to give it one more shot. Whether or not that’s what Hunter is writing, much of his total body of lyrics can be summed up by his line, “In the end there’s still that song.”
Side two begins with, “Here Comes Sunshine”, whose lyrics give the title to the album. Despite essentially being the title track, the song is a relatively short tune where the only musician that shines is Godchaux, thanks in part to some unique piano work. Hunter’s lyrics are in remembrance of the Vanport Flood, with the chorus being this hopeful exclamation of joy that the sun is returning to dry up the land. Overall the track is fairly forgettable, especially when Garcia’s guitar rips into the next track, “Eyes of the World.” The track features the most devoted guitar playing by Garcia on the entire album and an unforgettable chorus. Lyrically it’s a hippy song, but it’s a refreshing celebration of life. All people are “eyes of the world”, but each person has their own heart with its own song and its own reasons. Though vague, Hunter really steps away from his usual Americana-tinged, folky-sadness here to write a beautiful celebration of individuality.
The album wraps up on the epic, “Weather Report Suite,” written by Bob Weir, his lyricist John Perry Barlow, and Eric Andersen. The three part song begins with the “Prelude”, featuring some guitar plucking invoking old European lute playing. As the rest of the group shuffles in, the song becomes a country ballad with Garcia once more on pedal steel. As the “Prelude” ends and Weir begins to sing “Part I,” it’s full of melancholy. The lyrics speak of changing seasons, specifically summer dying off and struggle through the rest of the seasons. “Part I” features wonderful background vocals by Donna Jean Godchaux, fully cementing herself as a vital member of the band. “Part II” begins with some wandering piano and Weir brings vocal prowess in his best studio performance to date. Barlow’s lyrics in “Part II” are vastly deep to say the least. They touch on two characters, a woman who lives life gathering water and a farmer who spends his life plowing and sowing his field. When the chorus of “Part II” comes in, it relates the lives of these two people to the elements of earth. Humankind cannot live without the Earth providing us with thunder and rain from time to time. Thus, the people worship these elements and “listen to the thunder shout, I am.” Barlow’s lyrics sum up the simple life that so many long to return to. Where human’s worship mother nature, work the Earth to survive, and only rewarded with love of family and community. However, Barlow’s lyrics would be meaningless if it weren’t accompanied by some of the best arrangement on a Dead album to date. The drumming and horns in the background push the melody along, allowing Garcia and Weir to explore with their guitars. When the track hits its lyrical crescendo, it becomes this country-folk-jazz fusion and Martin Fierro steals the track with an incredible saxophone solo. When the epic wraps up, there’s an uncomfortable silence begging for the album to be played again.
Though Wake of the Flood is considered to be one of the weaker studio albums in the Grateful Dead discography, it has an important purpose. The album contains a few songs that would become staples in the band’s live repertoire, most notably “Stella Blue,” “Eyes of the World,” and the third part of the suite, “Let It Grow.” Besides lending a few new songs to their rolodex, the album is a great launching point for the next phase of the band. After transitioning into hippie cowboys, once again a new musical influence is pushing them in new direction. Keith Godchaux’s classical and jazz background clearly guided the way the band looked at the arrangements and styles of their old and new songs. This left the band pushing into more of a Country-Jazz-Rock fusion than into a straight up Bakersfield Country sound like on the prior album. Now well into the 70’s, the Grateful Dead continued to push into uncharted territory and devote themselves to touring as 1974 approached.