At the foot of ancient power: The Grateful Dead's 1978 Egypt shows revisited

Playing at the Great Pyramids 45 years ago was the ultimate experiment for the legendary American band

The Grateful Dead play at the pyramids in Egypt on September 16, 1978. Photo: Adrian Boot / Retro Archive
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Standing under a total lunar eclipse at the foot of ancient power by the Great Pyramid, the Grateful Dead were concluding the final show of their three-night run at the Sound and Light Theatre in Giza in 1978.

His hair in pigtails, guitarist Jerry Garcia wove the outro of the percussive Nubian composition Olin Arageed into an extended opening of Fire on the Mountain.

“There were Bedouins out on the desert dancing … It was amazing, it really was amazing,” Garcia said in a 1979 radio interview.

The September 14-16 shows in Giza were the ultimate experiment for the American band – the first to play at the pyramids – known for pushing music beyond the realms of imagination.

I look down and I see a stage, and a light bulb went off in my head immediately. The Grateful Dead ought to play in Egypt
Richard Loren, former Grateful Dead manager

And just as the Grateful Dead were playing in the centre of ancient Egypt, a landmark peace treaty was being brokered in the US that would reshape geopolitics in the Middle East.

For as the Grateful Dead arrived in Egypt as cultural ambassadors, on the other side of the world US president Jimmy Carter had gathered his Egyptian counterpart Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to broker the Camp David Accords that led to an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.

“No show that they have ever done has the international significance of their three performances in Egypt,” said Richard Loren, the Grateful Dead's manager from 1974-1981.

“When we left the stage on the last show, everybody was high on acid, and the first news that came on: They signed the Camp David agreement. Sadat, Begin and Carter signed the agreement in Camp David. This happened during those three days.”

Egypt or bust

Loren, who produced the shows, credited his friendship with Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin, who had a keen interest in Egypt, for developing his own fascination with the country.

“The lead singer for Jefferson Airplane is the seed that resulted in the Grateful Dead playing in Egypt,” he said.

Loren recalled riding a camel around the pyramid site during a three-week visit in 1975. To his right were the pyramids. In front of him, the Sphinx.

“And I look down and I see a stage, and a light bulb went off in my head immediately. The Grateful Dead ought to play in Egypt,” he said.

Loren, associate Alan Trist and Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh formed a scouting committee that would be responsible for liaising with American and Egyptian officials, Secret Service members and Egyptian first lady Jehan Sadat to allow the Grateful Dead to play in front of the pyramids.

After the mission to the proposed site, meetings in Washington and Egypt, discussions with government officials and a party for the consulate, the band still needed to convince officials the purpose of the show was to make music – not money.

And so the Dead paid their own expenses and offered to donate all the proceeds.

Half would be donated to the Faith and Hope Society – the Sadats' favourite charity – and the other to Egypt's Department of Antiquities.

“It was a sales pitch by the three of us – Alan, Richard and Phil,” Loren said.

A telegram was sent on March 21, 1978, confirming the Grateful Dead would perform two open-air shows at the Sound and Light in front of the Great Pyramid and Sphinx.

They would go on to play three shows.

A friend – and a statement

On stage with the Grateful Dead all three nights was Hamza el-Din, an Egyptian Nubian oudist, composer and a friend of drummer Mickey Hart.

El-Din and members of the Abu Simbel School of Luxor choir opened the shows with his composition Olin Arageed on nights one and two, and opened set two of night three with the song as well.

By performing with el-Din, the Grateful Dead were also sending a message.

Born in the village of Toshka, his home was like much of Nubia that was flooded because of the Aswan High Dam Project in the 1960s. Tens of thousands of Nubians were displaced and forced to resettle.

Grateful Dead scholar Nicholas G. Meriwether said the band's performance with el-Din was a pointed statement.

“They were aligning themselves with the most dispossessed. They're always championing the underdog,” he said.

A marriage of East and West

By the time they took the stage at sundown on September 14, the Grateful Dead were beset by problems.

Drummer Bill Kreutzmann was suffering from a broken wrist, Keith Godchaux's piano was out of tune and the band had issues with the electric outputs.

“We played terrible but the trip was great,” Garcia said during an interview on Late Night with David Letterman in 1987.

“We usually do pretty bad at the big ones. We were terrible at Woodstock, and, you know, Monterrey Pop Festival … all the milestones.”

Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir agreed: “We were awful.”

Loren said the Grateful Dead were simply overwhelmed by it all.

“I can't tell you what's going on in the minds of the Dead. But I can tell you, they were overwhelmed by the experience. Overwhelmed,” he said.

The Grateful Dead were their own biggest critics. But there were still standouts during their run, including Fire On the Mountain, Weir's ballad Looks Like Rain and their cover of Good Lovin'.

It was a roaring success that remains one of the most legendary chapters in the Grateful Dead's history.

But perhaps no song across those three nights bridged the two cultures quite like Drums.

Soon as the Grateful Dead struck the first note, I cried. I just went into tears. Because here it was – the Dead playing in Egypt. My dream
Richard Loren

African and non-western music heavily influenced Hart by the time he joined the Grateful Dead in 1967. Drums, which he performed with Kreutzmann, was a percussive exploration into the very roots of music that predate Americana.

In Giza, it was “the union between the Grateful Dead and the eastern world,” Loren said. “It was like a marriage between East and West.”

“That was just the icing on the cake,” he said.

The Grateful Dead's three shows in Egypt were the culmination of a years-long quest by Loren to get the band to play in the place that evoked the strongest of cosmic powers.

“Soon as the Grateful Dead struck the first note, I cried. I just went into tears. Because here it was – the Dead playing in Egypt. My dream,” Loren said.

“It was the highlight of my life.”

Bringing Egypt to America

Only a few hundred people attended the shows in Egypt, making the affair far more intimate than the throngs of fans usually gathered to see the band play.

So when the Grateful Dead returned to San Francisco the following month, they played a five-show run at their beloved Winterland Arena to bring the experience to Deadheads in America.

El-Din and his choir joined them on stage for the final two nights.

“They did what they wanted to do. They went there, they experienced it in the way that they needed to experience it, which is as performers in this amazing setting,” Meriwether said.

“And then they came home, they shared their experience with their hometown fans. And when they brought it home they were on fire, and they did a magnificent job.”

The Egypt performances embodied the ethos of the Grateful Dead, which was to make every show as innovative as possible. They did this not only by blending myriad music influences, but by giving themselves the freedom to capture the power of the setting in which they played.

Against the backdrop of cosmic and terrestrial powers, it was the grandest experiment the Grateful Dead conducted in the roughly 2,300 concerts they played over their 30 years.

“What more significant event could they have played in their career?” Loren said. “None.”

Updated: September 18, 2023, 11:06 AM