By 1974, The Grateful Dead were exhausted. The group which was founded nearly a decade before had spent almost the entire time on the road or in the studio. After the monumental shows in 1974 with their Wall of Sound, the group began to wear thin due to the constraint strain of touring. By October, the group decided to play five nights at the Winterland in San Francisco and then enter a hiatus from touring with no clear end date in sight. What came of those shows was a film, The Grateful Dead Movie, which would prove irrelevant as it wasn’t released until nearly three years later in 1977.
The 1975 hiatus would bring both positive and negative results for the group. Many of the group’s members would get to work on other projects. Notably Jerry Garcia’s started his new Jerry Garcia Band, featuring bassist John Kahn and keyboardist Merl Saunders. Weir explored new avenues, playing guitar with his friends in Kingfish. Even Keith and Donna Godchaux would begin working on an album of their own. However, the negatives of this hiatus would also manifest. Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann would begin to slip into addictions to opiates. Phil Lesh would also begin to battle a taste for too much alcohol after he found himself with little to do without his band. The positives would soon outweigh the negatives. Former percussionist and second drummer, Mickey Hart sat in with the group at the Winterland performances and would be invited to join them in the studio. The band also entered Bob Weir’s new home studio, Ace’s, to record their next album. Approaching the record with no pre-written material and open to experimentation, the band would find new paths to go down in their studio sessions.
What came out of these studio sessions was the the album, Blues for Allah. The album would be another mark of the band moving into unique sonic spaces, particularly less western time signatures and a more Middle Eastern theme. What also emerges is an album that at 11 songs, contains five instrumental compositions, some of which are within a greater track. (Note: I will be reviewing and speaking on the tracks as they were broken down on the vinyl version. Later digital versions combine tracks under one name. For example “King Solomon’s Marbles” and “Stronger than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey” are listed as just “King Solomon’s Marbles.”)
Side one begins with “Help on the Way/Slipknot!,” which starts out as this simple and clean soft rock song with some funkier grooves. The vocal harmonies in the back give the track an incredibly ‘70s quality, sounding like the soundtrack to a blaxploitation film. Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar on the track is clean and drives the melodies towards the back half of the track as it transitions into the instrumental, “Slipknot!.” The track is almost like an extended solo by Garcia as he takes the band into a far off sonic region built out of the “Help on the Way” sound. The song explores odd territories with rapidly changing time signatures from 4/4 to 5/4 or 6/4. The real highlight in the song is Keith Godchaux’s keyboards, which have this tactile quality that provides a real lightness. The last minute of the song also features some wonderful runs by Phil Lesh, playing in a high enough octave where he makes himself known. Suddenly the instrumental ends and “Franklin’s Tower” kicks off. The lyrics, though vague, speak of being born and moving through the world hopefully to be brought back home to grow and produce a good life. Garcia’s voice is high and airy over the simple rhythm, allowing him to shine through the short guitar movements. The song has that same quality like “Scarlet Begonias” off the album From the Mars Hotel, where the music seeks to put people on their feet and groove. It’s no doubt why these three songs were staples in live performance for the group’s remaining years.
Returning to an instrumental, the tracks “King Solomon’s Marbles” and “Stronger than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey” work as a transition piece to the end of Side one. “King Solomon’s Marbles” is a short two minute piece written by Phil Lesh. It kicks off with Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart banging out this jungle-like rhythm, followed by a deep bass groove by Lesh. The Santana-eque song features almost a minute and half of Garcia moving through scales, before they kick into “Stronger than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey.” This continuation of the prior instrumental, allows each member to extend the jam into different directions, never straying from its jazz fusion roots. In the last minute, the group returns to the main percussive theme from the beginning of “King Solomon’s Marbles.” The song is an interesting piece in the group’s overall discography, as it is a studio jam with more heavy focus on a jazz sound. Side one ends with the Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow song, “The Music Never Stopped.” The funky rock tune is this celebration of the band themselves. Barlow’s lyrics speak of this familial circus-like band, moving from town to town getting people together to dance, sing, and feel joy. Though almost corny, the song stops to point inward at how great of a moment the now is. The music expertly accompanies the lyrics, with the plucky guitars and jazzy saxophone.
Garcia returns to the forefront on the reggae influenced, “Crazy Fingers.” The percussion and bass, sputter along with that familiar island sound, while the keyboards whir around and inform most of the melody. It’s a bizarre song instrumentally, but it’s weirdness is continued in the lyrical structure, which is broken down into a couplets and haikus. The next track “Sage and Spirit” is again an instrumental, this time composed by Weir. The acoustic guitar and flute led song is an interesting take on a baroque theme. Once again it is another mark of the Grateful Dead moving forward trying new instrumentation in their music.
The album ends on a 12 and half minute prog-rock pic, broken down into three parts. The track, titled “Blues for Allah,” “Sand Castles & Glass Castles,” and “Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” is a true group effort, with every member getting a writing credit on at least one part. Part one, “Blues for Allah,” features a five part chorus singing over an Arabic rhythm. The percussive works on the track echo the whirling winds and moving sands of the Sahara. Hunter’s lyrics shift from his familiar Americana diction to one that could be ripped out of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or Qu’ran. As the song transitions to its second part, “Sand Castles & Glass Castles,” all time signatures fade away. Each instrument, moves into its own space, not at all syncing up on the same melody but instead exploring different reaches of this sub-Saharan sound. What is achieved is a feeling. A feeling of drifting down the Nile river. The sounds of crickets and rattlesnakes begin to fill the sonic space as well, further floating into the unknown. The mysterious sounds wind down as the chimes clank. Then in a moment, the harmonies return singing “Under Eternity, Under Eternity, Under Eternity Blue.” The rest of the group returns from the cosmic reaches to reunite under the coda. Finally the group return to the theme from the first part, chanting “Blues for Allah, in’shallah.” This wholly unique work is a fantastic representation of the group at its finest. Once again they embrace experimentation, incorporate unfamiliar sounds, and attempt to use music to incite new feelings. In this final epic, the group reminds everyone that even though the days of them frequently dosing LSD are gone, they will continue to use what they learned on those journeys to inform their music.
As 1975 rolled on, the band would get together to play only four shows, one famously at the Great American Music Hall to a small crowd not expecting the group’s reunion. The hiatus would roll on into 1976 for the Grateful Dead, continuing the great mystery of what the next steps would be for the group.