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Why the Grateful Dead’s ‘Wake of the Flood’ Failed to Live Up to Expectations

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The Grateful Dead went three years between studio albums in the period leading up to Wake of the Flood. Over that time, blues-soaked keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had died and replacement Keith Godchaux began to take the group into jazzier territory on the 1973 return.

It should have made for an exhilarating combination of styles — sorta like 1969’s Aoxomoxoa mixed with 1970’s American Beauty, the breakthrough album that had been the Dead’s most recent non-concert offering. Unfortunately, Wake of the Flood falls somewhat flat because so many of the songs had been shaped and defined through appearances in the group’s legendary live sets.

Without the reciprocating onstage energy among both band members and audiences, many of the tracks here — mostly written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter — feel a little too sterilized in a studio setting. It didn’t help that second drummer Mickey Hart was missing. (He’d return in 1974.)

Look no further than the R&B-speckled “Eyes of the World,” which fades out just as the Dead catch one of their legendary grooves. Such were the limitations of the vinyl format. Elsewhere, the opening “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” incorporates the band’s penchant for old-timey jug-band sounds, while Godchaux contributes the syncopated “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away.”

There’s also a cool gospel vibe to “Row Jimmy,” a whisper of the Beatles on “Here Comes Sunshine” and Garcia at his most touching on “Stella Blue.” But the closing “Weather Report Suite,” a progressive masterwork by Bob Weir, merely hints at the dimension it would eventually take in concert.

Whatever its faults, this October 1973 release remains a key moment in the Grateful Dead’s musical narrative, if only because so many of the songs on Wake of the Flood became consistent elements of the group’s sets well into the mid ’90s, when Garcia passed away, effectively ending the band.

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