The essence of the Grateful Dead has always been spiritually inclined. From their early days as the live soundtrack of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ “Acid Tests,” the band embraced the idea of using their music as a vehicle to express the energy of their surroundings, whether it was created by the crowd, the chemicals, or something bigger than us. Jerry Garcia explained that navigating these bizarre, experimental LSD-fueled gatherings as musicians taught them to “play with a certain kind of freedom that you rarely get as a musician. We didn’t have to fulfill the expectations about us, or expectations about music. It allowed us to experiment with music freely.”
The Dead maintained this sense of exploration as their live shows began to attract a devoted following. In an interview in the documentary series Conversations with Ken Kesey (produced by a young Peter Shapiro), Kesey commented on this phenomenon: “[the Dead] weren’t just playing what was on the music sheets, they were playing what was in the air. When the Dead are at their best, the vibrations that are stirred by the audience is the music that they play.”
The Grateful Dead’s ability to channel the energy of their surroundings through their music became the band’s calling card. Naturally, as the band’s popularity and financial means rapidly grew, they sought to exhibit their famous spiritual super-powers on an increasingly larger scale. This pursuit reached its peak 38 years ago today, when the Dead began arguably the most spiritually and mystically significant run of shows of their career—in the shadows of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
The plan to stage these remote shows was the brainchild of bassist Phil Lesh. “It sort of became my project because I was one of the first people in the band who was on the trip of playing at places of power,” he said in The Grateful Dead Reader. “You know, power that’s been preserved from the ancient world. The pyramids are like the obvious number one choice because no matter what anyone thinks they might be, there is definitely some kind of mojo about the pyramids.” The date of the shows also held mystical significance, as a full lunar eclipse was due on the run’s final night.
But perhaps the strangest, most inexplicable part of the event was how the ancient energy of the locale manifested during the performance. As Bob Weir explains in 2015 documentary The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir: “I felt the weight of the antiquity. Time went away. Future, past, all of it was right here…when the Pyramid was lined up with the Sphinx, I would hear echoes that seemed to go far beyond this place in time. At dusk, the mosquitoes come out, and I looked at my arm and it was covered by mosquitoes. And I’m thinking ‘OK, welcome to Hell.’ And then something flies by my face–it was a bat! I look across the stage, and the stage is swarmed with bats, and they’re taking out the mosquitoes, they’re saving our asses! Here’s a rock’n’roll band on a thousands of years old stage at the foot of the Great Pyramid, surrounded by a cloud of bats…and I think to myself ‘take me now, Lord, I wanna remember it just like this.'”
Maybe the ancient energy in the theater was just too big to capture that night, as technical issues prevented the band from capturing usable audio recordings of the first night of the run and much of the second. Years later, in 2008, Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978 was released, consisting of the usable tracks from the second and third performances. While the Egypt ’78 performances were not the most musically remarkable of the Dead’s career, their spiritual resonance and seemingly mystical energy place them irrefutably among the most significant shows the band ever played.
Listen to the audio from 9/14/78 (transferred by Charlie Miller and uploaded to archive.org by Jonathan Aizen) and, as a bonus, enjoy some amazing documentary footage filmed by Kesey himself from the Grateful Dead’s long, strange trip to the Pyramids, originally released by his son, Zane Kesey, on VHS (courtesy of YouTube user phish64209):
The Grateful Dead | Egypt | 9/14/78