The Grateful Dead’s traveling party on 1972’s European tour numbered fifty strong, and they took advantage of every opportunity to pull off prankster hijinx in the stodgy Old World. There are stories about band members racing cars through Parisian traffic while flying on LSD, roadies staging a baseball game in the lobby of a stuffy German hotel, and general Bozo debauchery beyond one’s most far-out psychedelic fantasies. It’s unlikely a band has had a wilder time on tour.

It’s also unlikely that any other tour’s shows have been as meticulously documented. “Everyone and their girlfriends,” as the band put it, went along. Therefore, releasing a live album became the only way they could turn a profit. Enter Warner Bros., the band’s label, which paid for the Dead to travel with two eight-channel, two-inch tape machines and an engineering crew to record every one of the twenty-two shows. The band compiled the finest of those recordings, and that collection became Europe ’72. It ranks among the Dead’s best releases, as it features definitive versions of a number of then-new tunes—“Jack Straw,” “He’s Gone,” “Ramble on Rose,” and “Tennessee Jed”—alongside the classics. Yet it also captures so much more than best-of moments; it’s something of a time capsule.

Europe ’72 is a snapshot of the Dead at what many believe was its musical peak, before fatal drugs took hold, tight and hungry to explore spiritual spaces within music. It’s the final release to feature every founding member. And it’s the first time in four years that Bill Kreutzmann served as the band’s sole drummer; Mickey Hart, after playing a legendary 1971 run with the band at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, stayed off the bandstand for the next three years.

When most people think of live Grateful Dead shows, it’s the “floating bass drums,” gongs, and tribal toms suspended from racks that literally set the backdrop. Kreutzmann and Hart are arguably the most well-known drum duo in rock music, and their sound was one of the band’s defining elements. So it’s somewhat ironic that the Dead’s best-selling concert recording—its lone live album to go platinum, in fact—features only one drummer. Ironic, but maybe not accidental. One of the keys to Europe ’72’s critical, commercial, and emotional success is the space that Hart’s absence creates; with a full drumset now absent from the sonic spectrum, it’s easier to hear the incredible musicianship on display night after night.

It’s suddenly clear why so many guitarists have praised Bob Weir’s inventiveness and fluency as a rhythm man. Weir’s comping is more in step with McCoy Tyner’s than Ron Wood’s; it’s clear, melodic, and rhythmically creative without becoming clunky. (That’s no accident, either—the band has talked extensively about listening to John Coltrane’s classic quartet.) All throughout Europe ’72 Weir feeds Kreutzmann idea after idea that they chew on and spit back out reshaped. The two also know when to lay back, like in “Truckin’,” where they trade triplet jabs and cruise on a glassy shuffle for more than ten minutes.

The band’s feel on the whole of Europe ’72 is more pendular. You can hear it in the two-step sway of tunes like “He’s Gone” and “China Cat Sunflower.” That probably has a lot to do with the pared-back drums. With Kreutzmann and Hart, the drums’ feel approximates something circular, perpetual even. Each player’s grooves tumble over the other’s and eventually meet in places that somehow feel both spontaneous and preordained.

Yet Hart’s absence doesn’t keep Kreutzmann from realizing that snowballing, four-over-six feel that became the Dead’s signature rhythmic concept. And Kreutzmann’s approach isn’t just to play more. To mimic the call-and-response phrases he created with Hart, Kreutzmann scatters the backbeats across multiple bars and beats. That allows him to hint at a number of rhythmic detours he could take but ultimately doesn’t. Instead, he reins in the displaced backbeats to form loping phrases that resolve after a few bars. (See “Jack Straw” musical example.) It lets Kreutzmann create tension and drama within what is essentially a pocket groove, elevating his playing beyond keeping time. When we expect him to zig he zags, and it plunges us into territory that feels unfamiliar. His phrases then illuminate many different paths, and he finds a way to bring the groove home.

“Jack Straw” 3:52, 140 bpm

Hearing him on his own, there’s no way to deny just what a ripping drummer Kreutzmann could be. In “Epilogue,” an instrumental rager that sprouts from the end of “Truckin’,” he settles into a contrapuntal groove that pits steady, delicate 8ths on the ride against a melody between the snare, second rack tom, and kick. Every now and again he slips in subtle reminders of the “Truckin’” groove—that sharp, metrically modulated shuffle, or the winding snare and ride sextuplets that open the track—just to remind us where the beat originated. (See “Epilogue” musical example.)

“Epilogue” 0:30, 186 bpm

It doesn’t take long for that “Epilogue” groove to dissolve into “Prelude,” another improvised instrumental dreamscape. The tune’s space develops into a fury, motivated by a so-fast-it’s-straight swing that Kreutzmann punctuates with snare pops and kick drum bombs. It’s reminiscent of the fireworks he set off while tripping in a German hotel, and in those phrases he illustrates the way that the rhythms on the bandstand imitate the rhythms of life on the road. (Like Weir, Kreutzmann was listening to a lot of Coltrane.)

The moment of magic in “Prelude”—really the album’s defining moment, where the band makes it clear how much intent goes into the jams—occurs near the five-minute mark, when, somehow, the players begin to find their legs and slam into the original tempo and key of “Truckin’.” These rhythmic and harmonic gestures are backward glances that serve as a reminder of the way the band began eighteen minutes earlier. It’s a wink that allows you to understand that it’s pretty much all the same song—it’s just been given the Dead treatment: dissected, inspected, inverted, tossed around, and zipped back up in front of you.

Drums of ’72

It’s surprisingly difficult to find definitive information about the gear Bill Kreutzmann used at specific shows on the 1972 Europen tour. Judging from grainy photos and YouTube videos of the shows, internet forums, and a healthy amount of squinting, it looks like a Franken-kit. The footage from the performance on Germany’s Beat-Club TV program on April 21,1972—during which most of the band was tripping—has great production, though it’s not clear enough to see detailed badges or lugs. It looks like he’s using a Ludwig kick drum (14×22), Gretsch toms (8×12 and 9×13, and a 16×16 floor), and a Rogers Dynasonic snare. Some have said that he used a five-piece Sonor rosewood kit on the tour; that’s not what it looks like in most footage, but it’s hard to say for sure. “Cymbal Set-Ups of Famous Drummers,” a promo guide printed by Zildjian, likely in the mid-’70s, lists Kreutzmann’s cymbals as Avedis Zildjians: 14″ Rock hi-hats, 18″ crash on the left side, 21″ Rock in the ride position, and 16″ crash/ride on the right. (Though in Europe ’72 footage, that right crash/ride looks more like an 18″ or 20″.) Crispy is the first word that comes to mind to describe the overall drum sound. The toms are powerful but melodic, since Kreutzmann tuned them more like a jazz drummer might. And his ride cymbal has a crystalline articulation that calls to mind K Constantinoples.