“Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead (1975)
When the late promoter Bill Graham organized a concert he called SNACK – that stood for Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks – to benefit after-school programs in the San Francisco area, he corralled a bunch of his heavyweight buddies to participate.
How about some of these names: Bob Dylan, Neil Young (backed by The Band), Santana, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, Tower of Power and the Doobie Brothers.
Also part of the March 25, 1975, extravaganza, coming out of “retirement,” was a group of Graham’s oldest friends, the Grateful Dead.
The Dead ostensibly had played a series of farewell concerts at Graham’s Winterland in October 1974, part of which later appeared in “The Grateful Dead Movie” and the poorly mixed “Steal Your Face” album, and still later as a much-better-sounding five-CD soundtrack to the movie.
At any rate, when members of the Dead reunited for SNACK, they performed perhaps the most esoteric set of their 30-year career: a half-hour-plus instrumental jam of music that was new to the band’s repertoire, neither the psychedelia of the ’60s nor the roots-rock of the ’70s. This was a jazzier version of the Dead, augmented by keyboard player Merl Saunders and anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. And of course, the late Jerry Garcia’s fluid guitar playing helped weave everything together.
Even for a San Francisco audience, those in attendance at Kezar Stadium must have been mystified by the proceedings until Bob Weir sang the familiar “Johnny B. Goode” for the encore.
The bulk of the performance laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead’s “comeback” album, “Blues for Allah.” Unlike its approach to previous studio albums, the band woodshedded for three months at Hart’s house, formulating new music throughout.
The finished product kicks off with a three-song medley that served as a highlight of many a Dead show for the next 20 years: “Help On the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower.” The relatively complex rhythmic patterns of the first two sections give way to a three-chord progression that benefits significantly from Garcia’s tasteful picking.
An instrumental medley, “King Solomon’s Marbles/Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey,” incorporates themes that were prevalent at the SNACK show, with the rhythm section at full power.
Side One of the LP concludes with “The Music Never Stopped,” with lyricist John Perry Barlow capturing the Dead’s essence of “a band without description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir.” The original version clocks in at 4 1/2 minutes, but later concert versions often stretched beyond the 10-minute mark.
Side Two consists of an esoteric but rewarding sequence of songs, starting with the deceptively relaxed “Crazy Fingers,” which on closer examination contains a series of unconventional key changes, built around an arcane Robert Hunter poem.
Weir contributes an acoustic guitar instrumental, “Sage & Spirit.” According to longtime band associate Rock Scully in his book, “Living With the Dead”:
“Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute (played by Steven Schuster) mimics their laughter.”
The album closes with another medley, “Blues for Allah/Sand Castles and Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which fully exhibits the band’s experimental orientation. Supposedly the compositions were supposed to be the next in line among epic Dead concert jams, from “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Other One” to “Dark Star” to “Playing in the Band.” But the group played it live only a handful of times before abandoning it.
“Blues for Allah” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most fully realized studio projects, and one that stands up under scrutiny better than the band’s subsequent albums in the ’70s and ’80s. The title medley might be a bit of a challenge for the listener, but the other songs are among the Dead’s more memorable in the course of the long, strange trip.