There are not many rock bands that will go the extra mile to achieve great sound not only in the studio but at the concert venue throughout their careers. British stalwarts Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Pink Floyd readily come to mind, so do the Grateful Dead on this side of the Atlantic. Though at first glance it may be tempting to comparatively pair the Brits because of their country of origin and often cited 'progressive' ties; instead a closer inspection reveals that the latter two share more in common than one might think.
Just like The Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead - as both were known prior to dropping the adjective — formed in 1965 and released their debut LPs in the first half of 1967; a period of tremendous flux in culture and values, deeply reflected within the music. Whereas Floyd stood out from the blues based rock largely dominating the Kingdom, by cultivating a following in the underground scene in clubs such as the Countdown and the UFO; the Dead could be found jamming at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco just a few blocks away from the famed street corner of Haight and Ashbury. In their own ways, both were at the forefront of the psychedelic movement with Barrett & Co. exploring the more experimental side of the equation while Garcia and friends tended towards the improvisational facets found in free jazz, acid rock and the bay area jam bands.
But by the end of the 1960s, the peak popularity of the psychedelic era had already passed, leading most of the bands to abandon ship or move onto greener pastures. Britain's big three innovators - The Pink Floyd, The Nice and The Soft Machine — gently transcended from psyche to 'spacey' art rock, progressive and jazz fusion respectively. In America, perhaps counter intuitively, they did not follow such a route. Instead of reaching for sophisticated new territories, bands such as The Byrds, Country Joe & The Fish and CCR returned to their roots embracing more earthy paths, the likes of country, folk and 'swamp'.
On that note The Grateful Dead were no different; starting in
June 1970 with Workingman's Dead [Warner
Bros. WS 1869], the first to carry a complete virage into country and folk
followed within a few months by the musically excellent and sonically
outstanding American Beauty
[Warner Bros. WS 1893 or Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-014]. After a couple
of live albums, the Dead returned with their sixth studio LP — Wake
of the Flood— originally the first of many released on their own
record label Grateful Dead Records [GD-01], distributed at the time by United
Engineers Dan Healy and Tom Flye respectively recorded and
mixed the band in August 1973 on 24-track analog - the new 'gold standard' at
the time and still to be reckon with today. The original mastering engineer is
not credited though it was mastered and cut at TLC — The Lacquer Channel in
Sausalito which prominently featured producer and sound engineer Stephen
Barncard who had worked on American Beauty.
The first vinyl runs were done at the Monarch Record Mfg. Co. pressing plant in
L.A. On this release, engineer Krieg Wunderlich remastered and cut the new
lacquer from the original two-track master tapes at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in
American artist Rick Griffin — known for his San Francisco psychedelic posters, underground comic counterculture and associated Grateful Dead LP artwork — designed a beautiful front cover bathing in earth tones of ochre, seafoam and maroon with MoFi's hued-matching band tastefully added at the top while prolonging the black frame all around. The back cover also replicates the original but with the song titles printed in black added in the top left corner and MoFi's usual credits and info in smaller print further down. Consistent with the front, a top band is repeated plus the universal barcode with MoFi logos occupying the bottom black strip. Contrary to many of their regular series, this release did not benefit from a gatefold jacket 'makeover'.
Inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static
rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton
comprising 36 album covers adorns the outer sides while CD's, SACD's and various
products are featured on the inner sides, bringing further record protection.
The heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. Both sides were flat, shiny
lustered and deep black, i.e. visually perfect and reassuring for the eyes. As
per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in
this case Grateful Dead) but instead is plain black with a silver top rim.
Inscribed in the dead wax on both sides is 'kw @ MoFi' for MFSL's cutting
engineer initials. Wunderlich chose an equal groove-spacing travel of 3.25"
for both sides, leaving approximately 3/8" between the last note and label
which is pretty much the minimum if to avoid severe stylus/groove distortion.
With roughly an equal 22.5 minutes of music per side, this translates to just
under 7 min./inch of linear cutting displacement. This verges just beyond the
accepted 20 minutes per side time limit for 33.3 rpm before significant sound
compromises start to be felt in bandwidth and/or cutting level though softer
program material will be less demanding than strong dynamic bass content. MFSL's
use of half-speed mastering/cutting technique and typical lower cutting level
will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by
doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove.
"Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" opens side A. The level cutting is a bit low as we have come to expect from a MoFi, so do not be shy of turning up the volume. If you are more familiar with the Dead's earliest period, you may be in for quite a surprise. Gone are any psychedelic references, replaced instead by a loose laid-back country vibe. Contrary to many recordings where the lead vocal or guitar soloist dominate the mix; here, as in typical - democratic - Dead character, every instrument is on a plain level field, reaffirming their egalitarian philosophy right down through the mix. American swing and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements' violin sounds oh so sweet, completely devoid of any grain and making it a true delight for the ears. Towards the end, the backing chorus comes in augmenting the stage. The general sound is warm and soft, supported by mild 1970-ish 'cushiony' compression; as such elevating your tonearm's VTA will help sharpen a bit the kick and overall tone envelope. Musically it is not my 'cup of tea' or make that 'moonshine' but the sound is pleasantly good nevertheless.
"Let Me Sing Your Blues Away" continues in the same vein both musically and sonically in a 'sloppy' laid back country feel featuring sax — a rarity in this musical genre. This is nearly on par with the previous track. The relaxed "Row Jimmy" has nice tone color regarding the guitar and interesting female backing vocals but is let down by soft sounding drum toms yearning for better articulation. In both rating aspects, this is the least impressive song of the LP. Fortunately the very smooth "Stella Blue" reverses the trend with the best track of side A. Lovely back vocals; wide dynamic range with lots of contrast; deep bass; excellent crispy presence on the guitar; this last one sharing ambient touches with some of Floyd's David Gilmour stylings. This vinyl side was noise-free and perfect all the way.
Flipping to side B: "Here Comes Sunshine" is again smooth with good punchy kick and snare, sounding dry and warm as many studios of that decade were heavily carpeted in rugs and absorption material. Vocals are also very well recorded. On equal footing with the previous track. From the very first notes, "Eyes Of The World" has a melody that borrows from Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic "What's Going On" [Tamla TS-310 or MFSL 1-314]. As opposed to the preceding tracks, this one boasts a faster tempo, is lighter and more transparent. The exquisitely recorded guitar plus its chorus effect is incredibly limpid. The soundstage is wider; cymbals are finer in detail but still sweet plus lots of great vocal harmonies. All of the above lead me to pick it as the best track of the album in both criteria and worthy of demo material.
"Weather Report Suite" is the closing track of the
album and is structured in three flowing parts: "Prelude", "Part
I" and finally "Part II (Let It Grow)". The former features
peerless panned guitars with impeccable finesse in the top end; pretty much the
best I have encountered on record and owing as much to the original tape
recording than to Krieg Wunderlich's skill using MoFi's half-speed cutting
method - those that possess true super-tweeters will be rewarded. The melodic
string riff remind me of The Rolling Stones "Angie" released barely
two months prior to this LP. The kick drum is big and fat sounding; country
slide or steel guitar hints at future Gilmour playing such as on Wish
You Were Here [Harvest SHVL 814]. Floating panoramic backing vocals
grace the splendid mix. A slow rising crescendo of hymns conjures up the sun
relief after the flood. This soon changes style to a more progressive-art-folk
form bearing harmonic influences from CSNY, The Guess Who's "No Time"
from American Woman [RCA or Cisco
Music LSP 4266] and America's self-titled debut [Warner Bros 2576 or Friday
Music FRM 9001]. Trumpets, saxophones and harmonica bring another dimension and
feel to this explorative piece. The second best song of the album presents the
listener with superb sound. The RTI pressed vinyl maintained its perfect silence
Summing up, Wake of the Flood is more representative of the second period of the Dead and will appeal to those whose musical tastes embrace more country and folk than to the Jefferson - Hendrix - acid rock trip which is not that surprising given that this is 1973 and not 1967; an 'eternity' in music history. By the same token, the sound aesthetics are perfectly conformant with the time period. As with Priscilla Ahn's A Good Day [MFSL 1-363], mastering and disk-cutting engineer Krieg Wunderlich did another fine job on this reissue upholding the original's excellent recording. As my ratings below suggest, I much preferred the second side for its musical direction which lessened the country flavoring.