A special Grateful Dead show was first captured on 'Rockin' the Rhein'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It’s not an obvious entry in the catalog by any stretch. As one of more than 100 official live releases, it’s forgivable enough to check out this album, glance at the setlist, realize all of the songs are available plenty of other places, put it down and move on.
Except it’s not playing while still shrink wrapped, and there are a number of unique moments tucked beyond the 30-second samples. Hidden inside Rockin’ the Rhein with the Grateful Dead is a solid argument that this was one of the better nights the band ever had among it’s 2,300 stops on a stage.
This version of this show, recorded in Düsseldorf, West Germany on April 24, 1972, has actually been released a few different ways at this point. This specific Rockin’ the Rhein package has been rendered redundant by the release of Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings — a massive box set, with all of its 22 shows available as individual items. But in this set, it does contain a couple of bonus songs, and the rearranged tracklist keeps the show slightly better contained on three CDs rather than four. In the era of the playlist, the disc count becomes less significant — it’s just a matter of how the songs are edited to flow. And they flow incredibly well.
So often, in discussion of the Dead’s live work, the first set is glossed over as simply a necessary evil to get to the deeper improvisation that was typically reserved for the second set. But on this tour, the band was playing plenty of new songs with a palpable fire. It’s what’s helped Europe ’72 remain such an essential album after all these years, and that comes through here as well. On that end, “Loser” is one of the better versions available on disc. The version of “Tennessee Jed” here is good enough to enter the “definitive” conversation. Pigpen comes through with his typical bravado on “Chinatown Shuffle,” “Next Time You See Me” and “Mr. Charlie,” while Bob Weir’s “Playing in the Band” is showing signs of expanding from a punchy five-minute song to another vehicle for exploration; it tops 11 minutes here, and it would grow as the years went on.
The jams, of course, are endlessly interesting, taking on a spacey feel while still remaining earthy and rooted, heavier on texture than strange noises for the sake of them. The highlight here unsurprisingly comes from “Dark Star” — skip the “Me and My Uncle” slid into the middle and what remains are 40 minutes that moves seamlessly from one telepathic movement to the next before gliding into “Wharf Rat.”
All the transitions on this night seem to be flawless, with the band really honing in on their shared space to blend everything together beautifully. Right after that massive run that starts at “Dark Star” and ends on “Sugar Magnolia,” there’s another set with “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” snuck inside of a romping “Not Fade Away,” while the bonus track (from May 24th in London) “Turn On Your Lovelight” zips around in an economical 12 minutes, providing Pigpen with another highlight.
All those moments and all the ones I haven’t mentioned are what the diehards are constantly seeking, and it’s what can convert the curious into the committed. While they were the same band every night, with the same members and same tics, they still found new ways to reinvent the songs each time through. There was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert simply there was no other band putting that kind of emphasis on staking out new ground.
But none of these performances were chosen for the original Europe ’72 album or the Volume 2 compilation that was timed to accompany the complete box set. So it lies in that relatively narrow area, slightly off the beaten path for the curious yet superfluous for the diehard who wants — and has — every performance from this era. But there have to be more folks, beyond myself, who walk that line balancing curiosity with obsession, not needing to shell out for every bit of music but still wanting more.
That was the case when Rockin’ the Rhein was first released in 2004, the first complete show from that revered European run and at least the third dip into those tapes, following the original Europe ’72 and Hundred Year Hall, recorded two days after the show that sourced this set.
With so much good material to choose from, and the sometimes confusing nature of the band’s live releases, it’s understandable for this to fall by the wayside. This is one very good night from a very good stretch for the band. It’s a swan song of sorts for Pigpen and can be seen as a more authentic look at the era than any compilation. It’s been repackaged now, but this version is still out there and still packs a punch.
There are more shows, of course, and there’s a lot of good music to listen to. But when time is a factor and some tunes are needed in a pinch, here’s a guaranteed winner.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org