Grateful Dead Expanded ‘Wake of the Flood’: Review

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The Grateful Dead’s reissue program continues with the September 2023 release of a 50th-anniversary edition of Wake of the Flood, the group’s sixth studio album (following three live LPs).

The self-produced record, which originally came out in October 1973, evidenced several notable changes. It was the band’s first LP without founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died in March of the same year at age 27 (yup, another member of the so-called “27 Club”). Mickey Hart, one of the group’s two drummers, was out of the picture for this album, as well. This was the Dead’s first studio album with keyboardist/vocalist Keith Godchaux and his wife, singer Donna Godchaux. It was also the band’s first LP to appear on the band’s own eponymous record label. Finally, though Phil Lesh played a bit of trumpet on 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, Wake of the Flood was the first Dead album to prominently feature horns (two trumpets, two saxophones and a trombone).

Wake of the Flood master tape box

All those changes had an impact on the music, especially when you compare Wake of the Flood with the group’s most recent previous studio efforts, 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Those earlier LPs found the group forsaking extended psychedelic jams and improvisation in favor of succinct, country-flavored rock statements that relied heavily on vocals and acoustic instruments. You’d never describe Wake of the Flood that way, which is not to say that it takes off in a wholly new direction. Yes, there are horns and there’s also more jazz influence as well as funk and ragtime, but the album is less of a reinvention than a vinyl presentation of the sort of music the Dead had been performing in concert for years. It also retains some elements of earlier studio albums.

The record contains several numbers that became concert regulars, including Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Stella Blue,” a fine ballad with an emotive Garcia vocal; “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleeoo,” which features guest Vassar Clements on fiddle; and the funky, rhythmic “Eyes of the World.” Another highlight is the jazzy, solidly constructed “Weather Report Suite,” a Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow composition that features lyrics from folk singer Eric Andersen and holds attention despite a length of nearly 13 minutes.

Though the two-CD 50th-anniversary edition drops more than half an hour’s worth of studio and live bonus material that appeared on a 2006 reissue, it does offer several other large carrots to owners of the original album who might be considering an upgrade. The first disc couples a remaster of that LP with demo versions of two of its tracks, “Eyes of the World” and “Here Comes Sunshine,” while the second holds a previously unreleased 68-minute, November 1973 Illinois concert.

l. to r.: Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia in 1973 (Photo: Jonathan David Sabin; courtesy Rhino Records, used with permission)

There was already a ton of Dead concert material to choose from before this recording came along, but the Illinois show—which is bookended by readings of Wake of the Flood’s “Weather Report Suite” and “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”—is excellent. Also featured is an 11-minute version of “Uncle John’s Band,” the Workingman’s Dead standout, which is sandwiched between portions of the even longer “Playing in the Band,” a concert staple that first appeared on the group’s eponymous 1971 live album (aka Skull and Roses). Finally, the set includes an exquisite 13-minute version of Bonnie Dobson and Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew,” which the group first recorded on its 1967 debut album. Like many of the bonus and original tracks in this package, it shines for multiple reasons, starting with Jerry Garcia’s guitar pyrotechnics.

Related: 1973 in music

Jeff Burger

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  1. Beat
    #1 Beat 15 October, 2023, 15:26

    Wake was always one of my favorite albums. I got to see them live not long after it came out so got to see them do a number of songs from the album. I still have my original vinyl copy that is in great condition.

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