The Grateful Dead had hit their stride by 1972. After years of ‘Primal Dead’ jamming, psychedelia, blues evolution, embracing Americana, and actually selling albums for the first time with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the band scheduled its first European tour in their hopes to spread the band’s profile to an international audience.
With a 32-person strong road crew, including roadies, tape technicians, family members, friends, and managers, Europe ’72 was shaping up to be a costly excursion. The band’s label, Warner Bros, agreed to pony up the money if the band agreed to issue a live album that would (theoretically) offset the expenses accrued throughout the tour. The band decided to go ahead with the plans, and each show was dutifully and professionally taped. The results would be some of the most magical moments of the band’s entire career.
Nobody really knew it at the time, but Europe ’72 represented a transitional period of the band’s existence. Having lost drummer Mickey Hart in 1971, Bill Kreutzmann was now solely responsible for holding the rhythm down. Just as well, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan had been experiencing health issues that shrunk the once-Falstaffian keyboardist down to a rail-thin and fragile presence prone to illness. The band had progressed past McKernan’s preferred blues and R&B covers, necessitating the inclusion of pianist Keith Godchaux, followed quickly by his wife Donna Jean on backing vocals. McKernan still sang a number of songs throughout the set, but his instrumental contributions were largely nonexistent outside some of the more basic arrangements.
This didn’t stop the band from giving career-high performances, often using their second set to take part in their signature exploratory jams. ‘The Other One’, a Bob Weir tune with almost infinite amounts of space to explore various rhythm and melody changes, was a favourite of experimentation and improvisation, often weaving in and out of other songs like ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ or ‘Wharf Rat’. But one of the band’s best moves was to descend into complete chaos during ‘The Other One’ before rising out of the air with ‘Morning Dew’.
A folk song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Bonnie Dobson, ‘Morning Dew’ found its central characters musing over a nuclear wasteland as the only survivors of the apocalypse. Filled with heightened emotion and bittersweet beauty, the song was added to the Dead’s repertoire, often coming complete with an impassioned vocal performance from Jerry Garcia and an even more breathtaking guitar solo.
‘Morning Dew’ was, to some extent, the last great song taken on by the Dead’s original incarnation. Its simple structure allowed Pigpen to contribute haunting organ lines that float over the top of Godchaux’s embellished piano runs. The band often ebb and flow with tempo to wring the maximum amount of emotion from each performance, turning the folk song into a group religious experience. One performance, in particular, moved Garcia to tears.
It was the band’s final stop on the tour, having made it all the way across Europe in one piece and returning to London for a final four night stop at the Strand Lyceum. Yet another furious ‘The Other One’ jam had brought the band to the edge of chaos, and as the various instruments began to fall away, Garcia played those familiar opening notes to ‘Morning Dew’. Whether it was because they were at the end of the tour or just because he was caught up in the moment, Garcia couldn’t help but let the waterworks flow.
“He’s playing with his back to the audience, tears streaming down his face, the music playing the band…Ecstacy on every level,” band publicist and biography Dennis McNally would explain years later. Tape operator Dennis ‘Wiz’ Leonard remembered it similarly in the band’s Amazon documentary Long Strange Trip, adding: “He did a good part of his solo in that tune with his back to the audience, with tears streaming down his face. Because he was right there. He was playing for all of us: all of human kind.”
That once in a lifetime magic was captured on tape, despite Leonard leaving the recording truck to watch the performance in person. The tapes kept running, the levels were still set, and the entire sequence was chosen for inclusion on the official Europe ’72 live album, where the preceding remnants of ‘The Other One’ are labelled as ‘Prelude’. ‘Morning Dew’ remained in the band’s setlist for their entire existence, but it rarely hit the spiritual highs that came at that final concert on the Europe ’72 tour.