Like any day, May 26 represents an anniversary of some sort. In this case, it's an opportunity to celebrate a tour that concluded 50 years ago and has since become immortalized on numerous releases and gone down in the annals as one of the finest in the career of a band known for their live performances. Just like public opinion on the San Francisco pioneers, that of this transatlantic run has only grown over time. Deservingly.
The spring of '72 was a period of transition for the Grateful Dead. It marked the last tour with original keyboardist and blues-focused organ playing of Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. It also featured his then counterpart and future replacement Keith Godchaux, who had joined a few months prior and was followed shortly thereafter by his wife Donna on vocals. The Dead embraced Keith's piano and its prominence sent them in a new direction as a band, which, combined with the departure of second drummer Mickey Hart a year earlier, provided fertile ground for the streamlined "classic" '72-'74 era notable for its nimbleness and clarity. I am not alone in the fanbase of those born years later who "understood" the Dead because of shows like these. Yes, it's easier to grab on to than some of those '60s explorations or '80s drums/space, but it's also ridiculously good.
The spring tour would be immortalized that November on Europe '72. Choice cuts of concert staples and others that would soon fill that role, many of which never had studio versions formally released, made for a triple LP representing a band at (one of) the peaks of its powers while simultaneously adjusting membership and touring a foreign continent. In hindsight, that they pulled the tour off is no surprise considering what they had already undergone and would later accomplish, but in the moment, logistical aspects were anything but smooth sailing. That the results sound so perfect and encapsulate an entire career that had yet to completely unfold is its true beauty.
The tour has since gone on to be released in full on CD. Volume two of the immensely successful original release dropped in 2011. It's also seen recent record store day features, and the entirety of the four-night, tour-concluding Lyceum run will soon become available on a 24-LP set.
This is the Grateful Dead, and the 22-show spring jaunt back in Europe '72 is the gift that keeps on giving.