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. Guitarist 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 on this day in 1978, 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 Cairo, 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,” the bassist 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.
Perhaps the strangest, most inexplicable part of the event was how the ancient energy of the locale manifested during the performance. As Bob Weir explained in the 2015 Netflix 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 for the first show 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.
Revisit the band’s performance from the opening night of their 1978 Egypt run with the fan-captured audio below, and watch drummer Mickey Hart discuss their trip as seen during the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Stream archive concert series earlier this year.
The Grateful Dead | Egypt | 9/14/78
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
Shakedown Stream Pre-Show Interview With Mickey Hart – 7/31/20
[Video: Grateful Dead]
Doing the Dead on the banks of the Nile! 42 years ago today, the band did three nights in Egypt.
📸 : Adrian Boot / Urban Image pic.twitter.com/INXqn6yFei
— Grateful Dead (@GratefulDead) September 14, 2020
[Originally published 9/14/16]