CORNELL...Happy 30th to an Immortal Performance
Cornell, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York, is best known by many, as the site of the most fabled concert in Grateful Dead history. Ithaca’s mayor, Carolyn Peterson, declared May 8, 2007 Grateful Dead Day to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s landmark performance at Barton Hall. In the past few years, another adjective has been used by some Deadheads to describe this show, overrated. So is this show a milestone in the musical annals of GD history, a paper tiger, or maybe a little bit of both?
For Starters, this performance is not even in contention for the Dead’s best concert. Thanks to an uninspired song selection during the first set, this show can’t compete with several other shows from 1977, one of the prime years for the band. First set show stoppers that soared into prominence during this year like Sugaree, Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo and Music Never Stopped were nowhere to be found in Cornell. We can only imagine how majestic one of those selections might have been if they were included in the set because the band was on fire all night. Jack Straw, Row Jimmy, and a super funky 15 minute Dancin’ in the Streets bristled with raw energy and fine craftsmanship, but the inexplicably bland set list from the opening set wasn’t up to nut. By 1977 standards, this set gets an A for execution and a D for substance. However, the scintillating ninety minutes of music that followed justifies Cornell’s hallowed status.
I remember acquiring the second set of Cornell like it was 26 years ago because it was. It was my sixth Grateful Dead bootleg tape. I dubbed it on a Yamaha double deck using a 90 minute Maxell II tape. With a red felt pen, I carefully copied the songs onto the cover like I was inscribing a religious document though I’d yet to experience the music. I first listened to it the following Saturday morning on a thirty minute car ride to Yonkers with my father for a dentist appointment. I was still feeling the effects of a Rorer 714 that was consumed the previous evening as I listened in awe to that Scarlet>Fire. It was a hypnotic collage of sound unlike anything I had ever experienced.
After Weir implores the crowd to take a step back because as Garcia put it, “All these people up front are getting are horribly smashed up here,” the band breaks into a vibrant Scarlet Begonias. With Phil Lesh’s thumping bass leading the way, his mates work their way through Scarlet like Olympic skiers on a slalom course. The attention paid to detail by the musicians is startling. In between Jerry’s radiant vocals, Keith’s psychedelic piano runs and Billy’s drum rolls were dazzling. The collective sound of the band is noteworthy – this was their best night of 1977 reaching heights that they achieved in the summer of ’74. Garcia has had more impressive nights, but I could make a case that the Grateful Dead never clicked on all cylinders like they did on 5-8-77. Even the date, has a nice numerological ring to it.
There’s something about musicians when they are basking in the glow of a fresh composition like the Dead were on this Scarlet>Fire. Fire on the Mountain was brand spanking new and was born as an extension to Scarlet Begonias on 3-18-77. Whenever I listen to live music I notice that most songs never sound better than they do as when they’re initially displayed the first 30 or 40 times. Musicians can alter tunes to keep them vibrant, but they rarely can recapture the excitement and magical essence of their babies like they do early on. In 1978 Garcia added an extra verse and instrumental foray to Fire on the Mountain making for longer Scarlet>Fires, but the Cornell rendition is the most spirited. Familiarity can lead to paths of new exploration with songs, but there is nothing like a musical experience when an artist completely kicks ass and delivers their initial definitive performance of one of their creations.
To this day, I’m blown away every time I hear the transition jam between this Scarlet and Fire. The transcendental nature of the playing grabbed me the first time I listened to it. For four minutes, the band was in two places at once as they leave Scarlet and approach Fire. Garcia dialed up the right amount of distortion on his guitar and pecked away furiously on the Scarlet outro – the notes poured out like a psychedelic dream while the band played neither Scarlet nor Fire, but both. It was a seamless magic act that no amount of preparation could have produced. Garcia’s leads are impressive, but the full scope of this sublime segue jam is one for the ages. The band was locked into a tight groove as they sound like they were coming and going at the same time. This is quintessential Grateful Dead as the band ascended to another time and place.
Jerry officially introduced Fire on the Mountain with his trademark leads that sound more robust than any other version. If anyone felt uncomfortable because of the mass of humanity crammed into Barton Hall, that was history because this musical event was a mind left body happening. The Dead weaved their way through Fire on the Mountain with compelling proficiency. Jerry and Donna harmonized delightfully on the final chorus, hanging on to the its simplistic beauty, but they had to let go, it was show time.
Jerry’s guitar playing was tasty up to that point, but on the final five minute passage of Fire he went ballistic. If Garcia’s intent was to simulate a volcanic eruption he was successful. Garcia savored the moment like never before as his guitar repeatedly screamed out the song’s standard melody line over and over before racing off to a two-tired climatic finish that can rival the apex of Morning Dew. He tore into a dramatic 15 second chord-fanning assault that was to be followed by a more intense 30 second finale. His playing defied the laws of physics – it was the ‘we’re not worthy’ moment of the night. I’d suggest using this Scarlet>Fire to try to turn on a newbie to the wonderful world of Grateful Dead music. If they don’t get it, abort mission.
That was the first of two long musical pieces worthy of serious homage. In between, the Dead exhibited a new song called Estimated Prophet. In the scale of things, it was inconsequential, but very well played. St. Stephen, a revered song in Dead circles, followed to the ecstasy of those in attendance. The hoopla created by the mere appearance of the good Saint was enough to send everybody home satisfied. To be honest, this St. Stephen doesn’t stand out from the pack, but it didn’t have to. The Buddy Holly classic that followed rocked the faithful to the bone.
Not Fade Away emerged from St. Stephen with all its rage and glory. The Dead’s tribute to Buddy was insidious. After one short verse they exploded into another elongated instrumental free-for-all. The band pulled off a Houdini act as the jam straddled between NFA and St. Stephen for the next ten minutes that seemed like a concise eternity. In a different context, this jam was similar to the Scarlet Fire transition and gives this concert a distinctive identity. It was an immense undertaking that smoked the minds of the denizens on hand. They first attempted to go back into NFA, but that vehicle was long gone. Instead they staggered around before awkwardly, yet triumphantly, returning to St. Stephen for its concluding verse. There was only one logical way to conclude matters – Phil dropped the bomb and Morning Dew was in the house.
As someone who has scene Morning Dew and St. Stephen, but never in the same show, I can only dream of how intense an experience that must have been. Is it any wonder why this show is so venerated? The Dew that followed was picture perfect in every way. The ending instrumental was another classic GD moment for different reasons. Garcia came out of the box a little fiercer than the usual. He had a series of lightning quick guitar runs that cast a mesmerizing spell on his mates and the crowd. As the Dead approached the big climatic finale stage of the jam, everybody was Jerry Garcia. Weir, Phil, Keith, Billy and Mickey were all creating at breakneck speed. The playing was so furious that all Garcia could do was strum chords as quickly as possible. The spotlight was truly on the Grateful Dead as a band, not just the amazing leads emanating from Garcia. I’m a Garcia junkie so I’d say there are at least ten Dews where his playing is more extraordinary, but this was the band’s collective moment, maybe their best ever as it put a huge exclamation point on the festivities. Fittingly, they put their instruments down and walked off the stage together.
If it were a Friday night, they may have encored with Uncle John’s Band, but alas, it was the Sabbath and they had to encore with the anti-climatic One More Saturday Night. However, the damage was done. They had a produced a timeless masterpiece of a second set that would live forever. As luck would have it, this would be one of the most circulated bootleg shows available in spectacular soundboard and audience recording. That probably explains why it has never been released officially. If it were released as a 30th anniversary edition in super duper 5.1 surround sound with 30 pages of liner notes prose, I would surely pluck down 30 bucks for it. I feel like I owe somebody something for the years of pleasure I’ve derived from Cornell. The fact that there is no 30th anniversary release reveals the corporate downfall of the Grateful Dead machine. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Cornell is more responsible for turning people on to the Grateful Dead than any other concert, even though it’s not their best start to finish. Clearly, it’s the accessibility of the Scarlet>Fire and the St. Stephen>NFA>St. Stephen>Morning Dew segments to both younger and older fans that makes this show so popular. Two huge musical happenings, one featuring their best 70’s combo, and the other brining together some of the band’s defining early masterpieces, makes for an enticing entrée. Long psychedelic classics like Dark Star, Playin’ in the Band and The Eleven are more of an acquired taste. I’ve learned to dig those longer free-form jams, but it took some time.
In conclusion, Cornell is not the greatest show ever and it is not overrated. No one from the Ithaca town board or Cornell Student Body lobbied for this show’s immortality. Its popularity is due to timely and wide circulation of the tape, ease of musical understanding for all levels of fans, two monumental second set masterworks and the band performing at their highest level. It’s the most important show because it turned a new generation of fans on to the Grateful Dead – ensuring the band’s staggering popularity from 1977-1986 without having any hit songs or albums. It’s fitting that this date and concert is being honored by a small city and its mayor in Upstate New York, but it’s truly Grateful Dead Day for Deadheads everywhere.