Thursday, May 24, 2007

Happy Birthday

" I'm the oldest son of a crazy man. I'm in a cowboy band"...66 years old

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Stephen Stills 5-14-07

Stephen Stills 5-14-07

At a time when the Beatles broke up, Dylan was practicing songwriting moderation and Hendrix and Morrison did themselves in, a new generation of musical geniuses emerged to carry the torch. These artists included Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Elton John The Band, Neil Young, and the Grateful Dead. I had the pleasure of seeing the most underrated whiz kid of his era, Stephen Stills, last night at the Concert Hall on W.64th St. I’d say underrated is a fair description of Stills because tickets were still available at $40 a pop for this performance at a place which seats approximately 1,000 concert goers.

I didn’t know that the Concert Hall at the New York Society for Ethical Culture Tickets existed prior to last night. It’s not a provocative name for this venue which is located near Lincoln Center. About a year and a half ago, the powers that be, converted this cozy little church into a concert hall. All the original church seating is intact with a little a place to stash your bible on the wooden pew in front of you. Attractive girls greeted us upon entry informing us there was a bar and we could bring our drinks inside. God bless this place. Okay, that’s my last religious reference, I promise not to call any of the performances religious experiences. But what a great idea they have going here. It’s about time we reclaim the synagogues, mosques and cathedrals and start putting these magnificent structures to good use – concert halls and theatres. God knows how great he is and he appreciates our zealous devotion, but it’s time for a new phase in the man/God relationship.

Thanks to my inquiring mind, I upgraded from a row U balcony seat to row G in the orchestra. I asked the young lady behind the counter if there were any good seats available and she informed me somebody had just turned in a row G ticket they weren’t using, so she was kind enough to let me swap it. Jay Boy Adams, a solo acoustic act from Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock Texas, opened up for Stills. Looking younger than his age and sporting a goatee, Stephen took the stage with a four piece band at around 9PM. He was wearing one of his specially designed brown pineapple-palm button down Hawaiian shirts that were selling in the lobby for 100 beans. The entertainment got under way with a popular number from the first CSN album, Helplessly Hoping. I was so close to the stage that with a running start, I could have long jumped from the first row and crashed into the drums - the stage was only elevated two feet off the floor.

For the next six songs, the band went into hibernation leaving Stills solo with his acoustic. I wasn’t taking notes, but if my memory serves me well, he played Treetop Flier, Man Alive, Blind Fiddler, Change Partners, Johnny’s Garden and Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills vocals and pounding guitar strumming rang out through the church hall. I dig the way he plays the acoustic; it was a treat to hear. He seemed to be in fine spirits and had animated rambling commentary between songs. The audience was surprisingly rowdy (in a good way) for an older crowd. Stills let the crowd harmonize the last chorus of Find the Cost of Freedom, and the New York City grandparents nailed it. Afterwards, he shared the following recollection of a Q&A session he had with a female reporter in promotion of his current tour:

“Question - What happens to the harmonies in those songs when the other two aren’t there?
Answer – You see, they were songs first.”

Right on cue Stills strummed the familiar opening chords to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. I knew it was coming at some point, but it was still quite moving. Stills emphatically weaved his way through each amazing part of this masterpiece which included a dazzling acoustic solo that brought the crowd out of their seats to pay homage. The band appeared back on stage to drive home the big sing along ending.

Due to all this excitement, I worked up a thirst, so I stepped outside the hall to purchase a beer. It was my third bottle of Sam Adams, yet the extremely attractive young bar attendant exclaimed, “This one’s on the house.” Say What? I’ve never been the recipient of a buy back at a music venue outside of a bar before. I didn’t even think it was a possibility. I was back at my pew in no time at all enjoying Stills’ next popular jingle, Southern Cross. Three more rocking tunes featuring Stephen on lead guitar ensued - I can’t recall which ones or I wasn’t familiar with one or two of them.

Stills took his place behind an organ which was rolled out to center stage for a spirited number called Old Man Trouble. His keyboard work was impressive and his guitarist ripped off a smoking jam. Moving back to guitar, Stills served up his classic Buffalo Springfield anthem For What It’s Worth. As Stills said earlier in the show, “unfortunately some of these songs are timely today.” It was a lively rendition followed by his only flat performance of night on Love the One Your With. That’s a favorite song of mine from one the greatest albums ever, Stephen Stills, his solo debut. Besides Love the One Your With, he didn’t play any material from that album. Church (Part of Someone) would have been a fitting choice at this venue.

Woodstock was next as I joined a rush of fans that lovingly stormed their way to the front of the stage. We were so close to the stage that Stills’ sweat was spilling into the spectators as he was cutting loose with searing guitar solos. After a satisfying offering of Woodstock, he came back for one more of his CSN compositions. During the Dark Star finale he was doing 360 degree spins while whaling away on his axe. Around 11 PM a brilliant non-stop hour and 50 minute concert was in the books. That was the best $40 I shelled out for live entertainment in a long time.

During Woodstock, I couldn’t help but think what a great ride this has been and what’s to come. On June 30th I’ll be front row at Dylan’s concert at the original Woodstock site in Bethel. In addition to five other dates with Dylan on his upcoming tour, I’ll be catching a Levon Helm Ramble in Central Park on June 28th. This is turning out to be my Spring/Summer of Love 40 years later. I’ve also had the privilege to see Gordon Lightfoot and Van Morrison within the last month. These legends of the Woodstock generation refuse to fade away; they just go on tour and keep getting better.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Prelude to the Catfish Files Part 1 & 2

The Catfish Files are a 30 year retrospective virtual reality tour. Inspired by the hoopla surrounding the 30th anniversary of the 5-8-77 Cornell show, I’m going to select parts of the Grateful Dead’s 1977 tour, listen to the shows on their anniversaries and review them. This gave me a good reason to retrieve some of my lonely CDs that are in isolation over at the Eastside Manhattan Mini Storage. 1977 was a hell of a year for the Grateful Dead; I’m looking forward to this project. After each anniversary date, I’ll post some fresh insights in the Catfish Files Part 2. If I remember, I'll post an mp3 of one of the show's highlights as well.

Catfish Files Part 1: Cornell 5-8-77
Catfish Files Part 2: …5-9-77 > 5-28-77
Catfish Files Part 3: coming soon in the month of June

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Catfish Files GD '77 Part Two

5-28-77…Hartford Civic Center

A lot of mind-blowing music had gone down on this tour that started at the Philadelphia Spectrum on April 22, 1977. This concert in Hartford Connecticut was the final stop for the Dead Spring Tour 1977 and the last of 14 dates on my 30th Anniversary Retrospective Tour. Garcia was a man on a mission with a score to settle. This was evident as the band raced their way through a high-flying Bertha>Good Lovin’ opener and came face to face with Sugaree. Jumping the gun, Jerry was already beginning Sugaree before Good Lovin’ had concluded.

Garcia couldn’t wait to show off his revamped masterpiece for the New Englanders as he truculently jumped into the first solo. After about 90 seconds he found a note he liked and repeatedly played it, squeezing all the juice out. It ends up sounding like an enraged commuter honking his horn repeatedly. Then Garcia started blistering his way through scale after scale. His playing reminded me of a big wet dog wildly flapping his body and ears to dry himself off. That was followed by some intense chord strumming before our fearless leader sang, “You in spite of all you gave/ You still have to stand in the pouring rain.”

Sensing the urgency in this performance as the second instrumental started, Keith led his mates into battle with a short brisk solo before handing off to Jerry. Once again Jerry was all over the fret board slowly increasing the pressure. He savored every lick as he took his time and traveled many roads at breakneck speed building towards the crescendo. About ten minutes into this version he let loose with a speeding rush of piercing notes. He stepped back for a few moments to let the band try to catch up with him an unloaded another run of high register screams of ecstasy from the bottom of his guitar. He had shaken everything he could out of these two remarkable opening jams. On his final solo, he played creatively without trying to bring it a boiling peak. It would have been redundant if he went on the offensive again so he just noodled around with some cool jazzy sounds for an additional three minutes. Checking in at 18:33, this Sugaree was better than the immortal 5-19 Sugaree from the Fox. This colossal 5-28-77 Sugaree is the definitive example of hardcore ’77 primal Dead.

The band regrouped for a couple of minutes before proceeding with a Jack Straw which once again impressed. It seems like the band had been increasing the second instrumental by 4 measures each time out. Straw was turning into a crowd favorite as you can hear the crowd roar near the end, even on soundboard tapes. Strong versions of Row Jimmy and Minglewood followed. I was pleased to hear the opening licks of Candyman next and wondered how I could have previously overlooked such an amazing show. That’s when the balloon burst.

Candyman, for some reason, sucked the life juice out of the party. It was a comatose version which led to a dull Passenger/ Brown Eyed Women/ Promised Land finale. It was a damn shame because this should have ended up being a classic set. Actually, the Promised Land was hot, but the song choices were a big letdown. The same could be said for the entire second set which was absolutely tedious to listen to. If I were to take the set out of context for a listen, it wouldn’t be so bad, but in comparison to the rest of the tour, this set is a can of spam. Terrapin Station was the only highlight worth mentioning. More than anything, it sounded like the band was creatively burnt out. And with good reason – it was a hell of a run.

5-26-77 Baltimore Civic Center

Music/ Sugaree returned, four nights after making its dynamic debut in Pennbroke Pines. Garcia seized control of the jam right away by peppering the crowd with a series of wildly creative guitar runs. This is a little hotter than the 5-22-77 offering, but there was no chord fanning finale. Phil seemed to cut things off with some thundering base just when it appeared the jam was heading towards definitive status.

Sugaree was introduced by Jerry and Keith with an accented chords every four measures that sounded like a church bell. Garcia was on his way and focused during the opening jam. Masterfully, he increased the intensity working over his axe for a good five minutes during the second solo. There was a little more foreplay on the third jam making this a good solid version, but it’s no match for the Fox Sugaree. Mama Tried and Sunrise kicked off a run of boring first set songs that were performed adequately enough. The imaginative ending punch of Minglewood and Bertha rode to the rescue to save the set. Both versions absolutely smoked.

High Time hit the spot after a garden variety Samson opened set two. The inspired song selections continued with a funky Big River batting third. Garcia gobbled his way through the first instrumental as the band played this like it was a new addition to the repertoire. Garcia couldn’t resist getting in some licks during Keith’s excellent piano solo. Garcia’s last instrumental featured more chord playing than usual as the band was just enjoying the groove. This Big River wasn’t as hot as 5-9, but there’s an irresistible quality to it.

Terrapin was a great call in the fourth spot; you could hear the band clearly making progress with their newest masterpiece. The nightly serving of Estimated Prophet cruised a long with its usual bravado until it dissolved into a whisper. Eyes of the World wheeled its way out of Estimated. Usually the Dead came galloping into Eyes, but this version had to build its own momentum. It was a nice contrast. It seemed like Garcia was adding his brush strokes to a different canvas as he dripped his way through. It doesn’t measure up with the best Eyes of the year in terms of length or intensity, yet it’s still an undeniable pleasure.

Not Fade Away followed, and once again we get something different. The jam went along at a good clip and suddenly dissipated like during the Estimated, but this was much cooler. Jerry, with some sparse accompaniment, continued to play NFA flavored licks eventually enticing the band to finish off the final verse like he did the prior night on the Other One. Towards the end of the NFA reprise chorus with Bob and Donna still singing, Jerry jumped into Goin’ Down the Road. It was another selection that hit the spot and the tone Jerry’s rolling guitar licks are intoxicating early on. Overall this GDTRFB was a little messy and not overwhelming. However, the whole flow of the set makes this a fun listen. Around and Around closed the set and was followed by an Uncle John’s Band encore. I can't rank this Baltimore show among the elite from my retrospective tour, but it's a unique a unique concert that’s definitely worth listening to.

5-25-77…The Mosque…Richmond, Va.

In honor of Bob Dylan’s 66th birthday on May 24, 2007, I’ll let you stand inside of my shoes as I review this concert which I had only heard once several years ago. Outside of being aware they played Half Step and Scarlet>Fire, I didn’t know what to expect.

SCENE 1: After several gulps from a Starbucks ice coffee, I’m venturing off to score some lunch… I’m loading the first disc of 5-25-77 into my CD player… Life is good, I’m listening to another 1977 show and the immortal Mississippi Half Step is the opener… I’m bopping my way down Third Ave on a beautiful spring day…This is a good Half Step about ten minutes long with a concise explosive finale. It’s no classic, but a great start…The buffet is looking good, Ill grab a few turkey meatballs, brown rice, black beans and some broccoli. My motto is eat healthy and drink hard… I’m on my way back to my apartment and loving this Jack Straw. This is Jerry’s finest Straw up to this point; I can really hear positive strides in the development of the Straw jam.

Meanwhile, back in my apartment, I listen to four more songs from the first set. Newer songs like Cassidy and Peggy O continue to flourish in my opinion. Hours later, I was awoken from an afternoon nap by the program director at WBAI. It was good news, Visions of Dylan will be returning to the air waves in June. I decided to finish off the rest of the first set in my apartment.

SCENE 2: Loser, I like the way this first set is developing… Hang on, somebody wake up Jerry, this is way to mellow… Donna and Jerry are harmonizing nicely on Lazy Lightning… Where’s Jerry? This supplication jam is lacking and Phil’s trying to fire him up and he’s not responding. Weird! A sub par Supplication…. Jerry just flubbed some lyrics on Brown Eyed Women… Nah, I don’t want to hear Promised Land end the first set… That set crashed and burned after a promising start… I need new sneakers.

SCENE 3: I’m making my way to Modell’s listening to the second set Scarlet Begonias opener… There’s like 184 different sneaker options and I can’t find anything I like. Thanks to my freakishly wide feet, I don’t have many choices. Wrap it up; I’ll take those $40 cross training New Balances... Oh, the music, that ended awhile ago. All that was on disc two was a generic Scarlet>Fire….Nothing to bitch or boast about.

I made my way towards Cilantro on Second Ave. for dinner sporting my shinny new sneakers and listening to an Estimated where Bob flubbed some words. There was a lovely young Mexican maiden tending bar. I enjoyed some margaritas and a spicily seasoned tuna steak with black bean mango salsa. I’m not a Met fan, but I was drawn into a gripping game with the Braves. Edgar Renteria made two outstanding plays deep in the whole and John Smoltz won his 200th game. The highlight was watching plump tobacco-chewing slob Bob Wickman pitch to the fit 48 year old Julio Franco with the game on the line. The fat man won that confrontation. I made my way back to my apartment listening to a languid He’s Gone that had an engaging outro jam. I listened to the rest of the show in my apartment.

SCENE 4: Drums, no thanks, I’ll fast forward…The Other One, ho hum, but it’s hot…Only three minutes before the lyrics…Hey, this second jam isn’t bad at all, it’s energetic and Jerry’s really coming on. There’s a struggle, Jerry wants to stay the course, but his mates want Wharf Rat…I’m not sure if this is great art, but we have ourselves a 15 minute Other One…Shit, I was hoping they would finish The Other One, but we got ourselves a comatose Rat…Wow! Listen to Jerry on his Rat solo…He’s not interested in song structure, he just wants to jam - unleash the beast!...Jerry still has his sights on Other One and he won’t be denied, the band relinquishes and Weir sings the second verse…Great stuff, I’m glad I didn’t know the song sequence ahead of time…Other One drifts into Wheel, I love May ’77, even when they seem to be down and out they kick your ass…Around and Around…I didn’t need that, but listen to Garcia jam…What a version, 12 minutes long…Johnny B Goode encore, I love Chuck Berry, but do you think we’ve heard enough of the same Chuck Berry lick yet?...Tomorrow, Baltimore and another Music/ Sugaree opener…I don’t know that show too well either.

5-22-77…Sportatorium…Pennbroke Pines

When Dick’s Picks Vol. 3 burst upon the scene sometime around 1995, this performance emerged from obscurity and achieved instant legendary status amongst Dead scholars. After tuning to Finiculi Finicula, Phil explosively led the band into Music Never Stopped. It’s a glorious song to kick a show off with, although the closing instrumental passage is always hotter when the band is warmed up and this is a set ender. This version is as hot as it gets for an opener. Jerry starts the showcase jam off a little tardy messing around with chords before firing off several rounds of impressive fireworks. It’s a more electric version than the opening Chicago Music from 5-13-77.

The thrilling start is enhanced by the selection of Sugaree as the second number. The first Jerry solo excited me and prepared for what I thought would be another colossal Sugaree. The second jam revealed that this would be no Fox-like Sugaree. Anyone who is smitten with Garcia’s fretwork will enjoy this long solo, but it’s not as explosive or focused as it was on 5-19. The third solo is almost non–existent, so this Sugaree is not representative of the best of its class, but what a marvelous way to get things going.

On Dick’s Picks 3, the next fours songs were omitted. I took the time to listen to them for this review and if you haven’t heard them you’re not missing much. DP 3 continues with a picture perfect Lazy Lightning>Supplication. As Garcia zips his way through Supplication, he escalates the tension masterfully. It’s great stuff. A sturdy Ramble on Rose precedes a routine Dancin’ in the Streets that’s lacks sparks. It’s a strong first set, but its bark is a little bigger than its bite.

The much beloved Help on the Way>Slipknot opened the second set. Holler! Have the Grateful Dead ever created anything more beautiful, I ask you? I always found it strange that in its third year they played it infrequently and then put it on the shelf until 1983. Anyway, the drummers pushed this combo along at a brisk pace that is more rewarding than the opener from 5-9-77. Slipknot! Is smoking, as the band and Jerry mastered all the nuances. Jerry’s leads ascended to a perfect peak as the band struted their way through an amazing transition heading towards Franklin’s Tower. Mickey and Billy shine, filling up the voids with fine percussion. Franklin’s is a solid, yet unspectacular offering. Jerry stands out on the fierce fourth instrumental passage.
Samson and Delilah sounds rejuvenated coming on the heels of that three-pronged attack. The stand alone portion of the set continued with Brown Eyed Women, Good Lovin’ and Sunrise. Of the three Sunrise was the only included on DP 3. Love it or loathe it, Sunrise had a tendency to precede classic 1977 moments. This time was no exception as the Dead set forth on their immense jamboree finale.

I got hand it to the Grateful Dead, they played Estimated Prophet crisply every night in May. This one leads into a nicely paced and seductive three minute Eyes intro. Like the Sugaree earlier, it’s pleasant, but clearly not a distinctive ’77 classic. The 5-18 version is meatier, but I’m sure the folks in Pennbroke Pines were ecstatic with this offering. Post Eyes, we get a couple of minutes of serene Jerry space which beats a drum solo any day. A confident Wharf Rat materialized out of nowhere and moved along at a pace that kept it stimulating. Jerry stoked the flames with a strong solo during the instrumental break. As the Rat fades away, Jerry discovers that the chord progression is similar to that of Terrapin Station after the Lady with a Fan portion of that masterpiece. The rest of the band picks up on Jerry’s Terrapin advances and all of a sudden they’re in the middle of Terrapin. Garcia stepped up to the mike and boisterously sang, “Inspiration, move me brightly.” It was a déjà vu moment similar to what went down during the Fox Playin>UJB, but not as dramatic. The band grasped the gravity of the moment and played the remaining Terrapin for all it was worth.

There was only logical conclusion to this Garcia dominated sequence, Morning Dew. Everything about this version was sublime. Garcia sang every word with carefully measured emotion. As the first solo was blistering along it was evident that Jerry was peaking and in the moment. The band realized this as well and let the Captain steer it on home. Saving his ultimate guitar wizardry for the final jam of the night, Garcia articulately filled up every second in smoldering fashion. His playing surged forward with the controlled intensity of flowing lava. As he approached the dramatic crescendo ending, the band was a step behind him which worked out beautifully. Instead of joining or competing with Jerry like they did at Cornell, the band created room for Jerry to explode before following his footsteps. Everything right through Garcia’s final, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” was phenomenal. This was better than the Cornell Dew, I think the one from 6-7-77 could give this one a run for its money.

A romping Sugar Magnolia which was not included on DP 3, brought this memorable night to an end. You can’t ask for a more attractive second set. After I review every May show, I’ll pick the seven best shows of the month, break out a spreadsheet and try to figure out how these shows rank. Obviously, this will be one of the finalists.

5-21-77…Lakeland Civic Center Arena…Lakeland, Fla.

This is the tenth show of my retrospective tour so I’ll make this review short and sweet. The most notable song of the first ten was a hot Jack Straw featuring a spicy jam from Jerry. I could pontificate about how vibrant the Bertha was or how the Tennessee Jed was swampy sounding, but let’s just say that the song selection was dull and the playing was hot.

Scarlet>Fire ended the first set with a bang, just like it had four nights earlier in Alabama. Garcia dominated the action on Scarlet Begonias for over 12 minutes excelling on both solos. This is easily the best of the four Scarlets I’ve reviewed so far. Fire on the Mountain was played surprisingly soft in comparison to the powder keg from Alabama. The beat was understated as Jerry had fun exploring the instrumentals in a different way. The final solo sputtered, but overall this was a tremendous highlight. I thought I might start getting bored with all these Scarlet>Fires, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how each one has its own distinctive flavor.

There was no reason to get excited about the Samson, Brown Eyed Woman, Estimated Prophet>He’s Gone second set opening. He’s Gone broke up the efficiently monotonous flow and had a decent pre drums Jerry solo. The fun began with a fully explored rocking six minute introduction to The Other One. The following instrumental that leads into Comes a Time is subdued, moody and all Jerry. It was if Garcia was stopping time, you could hear a pin drop. I’m not sure why they never came back for the second verse on any of these ’77 renditions.

Comes a Time is always great to hear; perhaps this version was slightly less poignant than the others from this tour. The last thing anyone was expecting coming out the superb Come a Time outro was St. Stephen, but whoomp, there it was. It was nice to hear this St. Stephen unravel at a leisurely pace and melt into Not Fade Away which is more of a shuffling boogie than a hard rocker on this night. Not surprisingly, an easy going NFA jam ensues before returning itself to a St. Stephen reprise. One More Saturday Night and a U.S. Blues wrap this affair up. Overall I’d sat this show is a B +, it offers the listener an interesting change of pace to the muscular ’77 sound while still delivering quality goods.

5-19-77…Fox Theatre…Atlanta, Georgia

This is the second most famous show from May 1977 and the second one from that month to be commemorated by the Dick’s Picks Series. It’s certainly in contention for the best show honors from this leg of my retrospective tour. After opening up with a flickering jab in the form of Promised Land, the “Jones Gang” (as they would be dubbed on 11-4-77) offers up the most storied performance of Sugaree thanks to a historic presentation and a widely circulated soundboard tape.

There’s no foreshadowing the impending rampage as the band makes its way through a melodic first instrumental. The opening solo from the St. Paul Sugaree a week earlier is spunkier. Keith calmly led the way on piano into jam #2 before Garcia dramatically seizes control with a flurry of leads. Out of nowhere, the shit hits the fan. Garcia’s guitar picking suddenly became panicked and the band was right on his tail. It feels like your being sucked into some kind of musical force field – something I’ve never heard another band do. The rug gets pulled out from beneath the listener’s feet. At one point I feel like I’m flying high on gas and sitting in a dentist’s chair as he’s laughing madly and drilling away at my molars. Everybody in the band was locked into a supernatural groove playing as a unit at blinding speed. There would be longer second jams as Sugaree blossomed into a blockbuster in 1977, but most of them don’t have the creative purity of this one. I can only imagine what somebody in the audience who last saw this song live in 1974 must have been thinking.

In the development of Sugaree, the third instrumental on this night at the Fox was significant. Instead of a calm jam where the band noodles around, they stepped on the gas brining things to another rousing climax. This was a little shorter than its predecessor and was more of a wild mad-dash chord fanning session, but it marks the first time they went for the jugular on the third jam. In the future, Sugaree would be capable of delivering anywhere from 1-3 monster jams depending on the band’s mood. Sometimes Garcia would unload everything he had in the second instrumental and skip the third one. For me, the ideal Sugarees would be when Jerry would masterfully increase the intensity with each succeeding jam. This 16 minute Fox dynamo would be surpassed by some other versions, but this was the trendsetter.

As for the rest of this solid opening set, I’m drawn to the excellent Row Jimmy. Garcia’s solo on Loser is brilliant. The boys and Donna really gel on the set ending Dancin’ in the Streets. A few minutes shorter than most ’77 versions, the band really locks into a concise groove here. There’s better first sets including the opening night at the Fox, but the second set is one for the ages featuring an immortal medley of songs.

Ramble on Rose was a nice change of pace after another Samson second set opener that featured some creative licks from Jerry. I’m convinced Weir thought he had a huge smash hit on his hands as I listened to another fine stand alone Estimated Prophet. The Terrapin Station on this night is huge, surpassing the other ones I’ve heard from this tour, the band really seemed to be focused and in control all the way through. The tempo was relaxed as Jerry sang it like he was intimate with it. An authoritative Terrapin outro led to a segment of music that would further distance the Grateful Dead from other musical acts.

Decisively, the Dead rushed into Playin’ in the Band as if their futures depended on it. After the singing was done, Phil led the band into the unknown. The Middle Eastern sounds coming from Jerry’s Guitar changed the mind set of everybody in the Fox, anything was possible. About eight minutes in, the band is doing their weird thing in unison. A strange momentum was building towards something different. The first hints of an Uncle John’s Band came from Weir. Garcia was locked into Playin’, but a minute later, Weir broached the subject again and Jerry resolutely joined in. The band was now racing back towards the finale of Uncle John’s and the song hadn’t even started yet. They approached the ending and sang, “Oh oh what I want to know oh oh, is how does the song go.” Instinctively, the band knew what to do as Garcia and company triumphantly pounded out the song’s intro starting from scratch. If it was discussed before hand, I can’t say, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s one of those special anything can happen at anytime moments that only the Grateful Dead were capable of. It was a one time happening that couldn’t have come off any better and never would be attempted again.

Uncle John’s soared throughout as one would expect after such a marvelous arrival. It’s a complete version with an impeccable performance from the band as a whole. Jerry’s final solo burns and then the band went back for the UJB reprise for an unprecedented second time. As someone who’s not easily moved by drum solos, the one that followed is a great listen for five minute before Billy and Mickey pounded their way into The Wheel with a war-like beat. A slow developing mellow version of Wheel cast a hypnotic haze over the proceedings. The Wheel mysteriously spun its way into a brief Playin’ space before another surprise was revealed behind door number two.

5-19-77 was a night of action, so without any hesitation the band launched into China Doll. The last we had heard from the Doll was on the backend of a monster Eyes of the World from the Winterland on 10-19-74. Just to recap, surrounding this Playin’ in the band we have four Garcia/ Hunter gems: Terrapin Station, Uncle John’s Band, The Wheel and a China Doll that was breathtaking. The exiting Jerry guitar solo of China Doll bursts with sorrow to conclude a grand return. The Dead were playing rare tunes in uncommon sequences and pulling them off with the ease of a postman making his daily deliveries.

Heading back from galaxies unknown, the band tore through a wild Playin’ reprise, the definitive version. There was a cosmic energy being channeled from Jerry’s guitar like few times before. For me, it conjures up moments like the 4-8-72 Dark Star and the 8-27-72 Playin’. The transition from space travelers to rock stars is completed as the band charged back for the last verse of Playin’. Not wanting to let go of the moment, they held the last note for 40 seconds, shaking every last bit of creativity out of their beings. They had created something that was out of the realm of possibility, until it happened. That was one of the great expectations of a Dead show – to see them pull off something you never even dreamed of. They accomplished that like never before on 5-19-77. There was one more surprise, no encore.

5-18-77… Fox Theatre…Atlanta, Georgia

The “other show” at the Fox is a classic because it has three colossal performances. The show starts with a rare Deal opener and is followed by a sparkling Cassidy. Things then settle into a predictable and unremarkable mode until the band plays Lazy Lightning > Supplication. It’s a clean well executed pairing followed by a slowwwww High Time which wasn’t as effective as the prior night’s offering. This set was turning into a snoozer until Jerry summoned his supernatural powers on the set ending Music Never Stopped. The jams on Music are fantastic in ’77, but this version is obscene. Garcia explored every nook and cranny of the fret board as he unleashed a dazzling display featuring high notes, low notes, lightning quick chord fanning, and repetitive scale playing. He kept altering the direction of the instrumental while cruising at full speed. It’s an amazing presentation that’s almost on par with the one from Buffalo nine days earlier.

A leisurely paced Jack Straw that lacked punch was a nice alternative to open up the second set. Jerry had a predilection for slow ballads on this evening as he followed with Ship of Fools. Prior to Estimated Prophet Weir said, “Now we’d like to do a selection from our upcoming Arista Record.” Another precise version of Estimated worked its way into the show’s second big highlight, Eyes of the World. The introduction is a five minute whirlwind of frenzied playing from Garcia and mates. In its entirety, this version is like a 13 minute tidal wave of sound that’s imposing. It’s a powerhouse ’77 Eyes, but one criticism I have of it is that it’s a little singular in its vision. There aren’t dramatic emotional twists and turns that are characteristic of the Englishtown version later that summer.

You can feel the rumblings of the Other One during the short drum solo that follows Eyes. Phil dropped the necessary opening bombs and Garcia pounced on this Other One like a starve-crazed hyena on fresh carcass. Unlike a few shows ago in Chicago, this version is roaring with muscular ’77 karma. Its intensity rivals the best Other Ones from 1969. Garcia kept wheeling and dealing for five minutes with the band clearing the way for him all the way to Weir’s first verse. Garcia started his second solo after a seven second delay and somehow it was more extreme than its predecessor. It’s hard to believe, I thought Jerry might break off into something softer and more cerebral. The next four minutes are as combustible as anything you’ll hear from the Grateful Dead – shades of the night before. The first nine and a half minutes of this Other One is as compelling as any other version, and one of the standout performances of 1977.

Seeping its way through a three and a half minute foggy haze, The Other One dramatically slows down and beautifully melts into Stella Blue. It’s a stunning transition from turmoil to serenity. Once again, Jerry gets locked into a slow poignant ballad that features sublime lead guitar at the end. Around and Around brought this show of extremes to a reelin’ and rockin’ conclusion. Garcia decided on yet another slow ballad, Brokedown Palace, for the encore on the first of two nights at the Fox. Colossal renditions of Music, Eyes and Other One render this show into star status. It’s a must have/ listen, if just for those three giants.

5-17-77…Memorial Coliseum…Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Leaving the City of Blues, the Grateful Dead resumed their spring tour in the Southern Untied States. The first stop, in what would be a memorable week in their history, was at the University of Alabama. I must confess, I had not heard this concert more than once or twice in my life. With the massive influx of Dead CDs I acquired about six years ago, it was impossible to appreciate everything in that mother load. I’ve read positive reviews of this show and had high expectations coming into this listen, largely due to the exquisite looking 14 song first set.

During the opening Minglewood, Keith and Phil’s feisty playing set the tone as Jerry shook off some cobwebs. Hearing Mississippi Half Step in the second spot is very desirable, but sometimes it might be too early in a show for Jerry to give it the royal treatment. It’s a good thing that wasn’t the case in Alabama on this night. Jerry used the pre-Rio Grande instrumental to explore some terrain and then brought the house down post-Rio Grande. He stepped into that final jam like a man possessed which may have scared his mates who tried wrapping the jam up. Garcia exercised his veto power by playing right through the band’s feeble attempt to end Half Step. Our Captain let fly with combinations of lightning quick leads and chord fanning. I now have another ’77 Half Step to put up on a pedestal. It was evident that this night was going to be a barn-burner from the beginning to the sweet ending.

Straddling the Mexican border, Jerry floated Half Step right into the opening of El Paso. The following Love Each Other is noteworthy for the perky Garcia solo. The band showed their hand and played a pair of Jacks. They really excelled on this Jack Straw accelerating and shifting tempos that created gripping musical tension. Straw would go on to be a Jerry showcase, but the band as a whole never played it better than they did here. Of course, I prefer Straw when Garcia is the star. As I listened to the Jack-A-Roe, I was surprised by how perfect it sounded in only its third outing and then I remembered this is the version featured on the official Phil Zone release. Even the Looks Like Rain from this concert was delightful, especially the trading of licks between Keith and Jerry at the end.

Passenger came together much better than it did during its debut in St. Louis. Jerry and Donna harmonized beautifully on a well placed High Time that was followed by another fine band performance on Big River. Garcia’s first jam was spunky, but he didn’t nail the final jam like he did in Buffalo on 5-9. If you’re keeping track of this on a scorecard, Sunrise would be the twelfth song of the first set. It’s really not as bad a song as some would have you believe. I like Donna’s spirited singing. With a little fine tuning and some help from Robert Hunter, this could have been a fine jingle. Like Sunrise did at Buffalo, it set the stage for the evening’s piece de resistance.

Sweet Jesus, the set ending Scarlet>Fire is a treasure. Scarlet Begonias flows with grace and Jerry shows signs of explosiveness on his first solo. On the departing instrumental, Jerry noodled away as his mates who were suffering from pre mature Fire ejaculation tried to lure Garcia away. Jerry stood his ground and reclaimed the Scarlet jam as this version checks in at around 12 minutes.

A huge statement was made when the band broke into Fire. The three minutes groove preceding the first verse was infectious. Is there a song with a better natural beat? Garcia adjusted knobs and stepped on pedals in just the right way to create mind blowing sounds from his guitar throughout. Towards the end of the rowdy Fire intro, he played a thunderous chord on the offbeat for several stunning measures. Unlike the hypnotic transition on Cornell, this entry into Fire was a raucous celebration, but both are magnificent creations.

Jerry worked out a nice between verse solo, although it seemed a little short. Instead of following the band back into the verse, Garcia ventured out for another three minutes of jamming. There would be no short cuts or lack of effort on any song on this night. If the band came up short, Garcia had their back and vice or versa. Overall, this Scarlet>Fire comes close to Cornell, but that 5-8 closing jam always tilts the scales in favor of Cornell. And ah, that was just the first set.

After a 40 minute intermission, the band resumed with the same intensity they had finished up with. The opening Samson>Bertha is extremely nutty. I’ve heard many longer Samsons, just not as ferocious. There must have been some interesting fruit punch backstage because, to a man, the playing is as raucous as I ever heard from this band. Bertha fed off the incredible momentum of Samson and started in the same exhilarating way it did in Chicago on 5-13-77 right after the band completes the last chorus of Samson. This particular two song blast might be a great place to start if you’re trying to turn a newbie on to GD. Brown Eyed Women and Estimated are well played stand alones, but I’m bored with them at this point in my retrospective tours. I’m glad they eventually dropped the stand alone Estimated routine.

Terrapin was pretty good and its inclusion in the set is positive. I have trouble getting excited with these ’77 Terrapins because I feel Garcia’s voice aged so well with this brilliant Hunter composition over the next few years. A Playin’ sandwich is the next course. Before heading towards drums, Garcia was in a creative frame of mind as his psychedelic fretwork produced some tiger-like riffs. This Playin’ in the Band has a tasty ‘72-’74 feel, although not as lengthy.
After drums, Jerry had another huge moment as the band broke into Wharf Rat. Returning to the stage to play his initial guitar licks, he sounded like a deep sea diver resurfacing. It’s a wild 25 second into to the Rat that sets the mood for an engaging performance featuring an enormous blast from Phil prior to the I’ll get up and fly away chant. After the earlier fireworks, it’s amazing how they slipped back into this hypnotic moody presentation. Wharf Rat naturally spun its way back into a wild Playin’ in the Band finale featuring an amalgamation of ’72 psychedelics with ’77 muscle. What a great show-ender Playin’ is – they really should have done it more often.

Playin’>Drums>Wharf Rat>Playin’ may not look incredible on paper, that’s why you gotta spin the disc. To drop an exclamation point on this evening the band beyond description rocked out a rare Sugar Magnolia encore. The band absolutely sizzled as their fearless leader didn’t seem all that interested early on. Garcia rallied with a vengeance connecting on some sparkling leads at the end. This version was superior to the others that I’ve reviewed from this 30th anniversary hoedown. If I compiled a five CD compilation of the best of 1977, more songs from Cornell would make it than any other concert. However, I’d have to rate this Tuscaloosa show ahead of Cornell. There’s just too much happening here.

5-15-77…St Louis Arena

Loaded with a lot of intriguing material, 5-15-77 is close, but not quite a ’77 powerhouse. There’s a bouncy Bertha>Good Lovin’ and a Minglewood featuring two action packed Garcia solos early on. Jerry’s vocals and the tone of his guitar jam made Tennessee Jed more exciting than usual. The band is sloppy on Lazy Lightning > Supplication as Jerry continued to dominate the action. The second Jack-A-Roe is a winner; I have a new found appreciation for these slower and funkier 1977 presentations. Passenger made a forgettable debut, but any debut of a new song is positive.

The eleven-song opening set closed in grand fashion with the best Dancin’ in the Streets of the year. My mind tends to wander during some of these versions that go and on and nothing really happens. That’s not the case on this one that checks in at around 18 minutes. Donna was all over the lead vocals, drowning out Weir, and she did a commendable job. Jerry galloped along during the long instrumental segment, dishing out creative licks all over the place. The band was brilliant while nailing the funky chord progression that leads back to the final verse. Donna and Bob sang, “Dancin, Dancin, Dancin in the Streets, over and over, at least 50 times, to Mickey and Billy’s soft beat. A dramatic fanfare finale from everybody in the band put the finishing touches on this masterpiece.

Estimated >Eyes made a love connection for the second time ever for the opening entrée of set two. Eyes of the World is cranking early on with its three minute opening jam and some decisive and melodic leads from Jerry in the first jam. Uncharacteristic of the powerful ’77 Eyes, the second instrumental is short and goes nowhere. Jerry atoned for his sin by noodling his way into a creative fanfare crescendo in a post lyric jam. Solid versions of Samson and Ship of Fools follow before the final presentation.

The band was clicking as they broke out St. Stephen. Everything from the vocals to the solos and overall performance is better than the Cornell version. They break off into what sounds like Not Fade Away at the designated time, but to the surprise of the crowd it’s the first offering of Iko Iko. This is a playful one verse flirtation with Iko before they break into Not Fade Away. The jam started off strong, but the creative juices weren’t flowing. Jerry teases several suggestions and the band finally decided on Sugar Magnolia and an adequate performance ensues. What started off as a potentially classic grouping of songs ends up just being good which is disappointing. Another Jerry tune with a slamming Sugar Mag could have turned St Louis into a classic. The Uncle John’s encore was strong.

Here are the standings halfway through my retrospective tour:
5-8 Cornell
5-11 St. Paul
5-15 St. Louis
5-9 Buffalo
5-13 Chicago
5-12 Chicago

Uncle John's Band mp3 from 5-15-77

5-13-77…Chicago Auditorium Theatre

An intoxicating mix of songs with a big-time finish make this first set a good listen. Broadcast live on FM radio, 5-13-77 was among my first ten tapes – I can still remember the way my tape cover looked in black magic marker. The infamous “Calling Dr. Beachwood Spoof,” improvised by Billy, Mickey and Phil prior to the show’s commencement is hilarious. I don’t get it, but that’s the point. It sets the tone for the night as it sounded like the band was having a whopping good time.

Most of the first set performances, including a Music Never Stopped opener, aren’t up to lofty ’77 standards. The order in which the songs unfold, and the initial offering of Jack-a-Roe kept things interesting. The new slow Friend of the Devil and Minglewood Blues were a little sluggish.
The set closing Scarlet>Fire has some incredible moments. Spurred on by the rhythm section, Garcia unleashes a searing solo in the middle of Scarlet. This was fortuitous because there is no Scarlet transition jam to speak of. Donna wailed away a bit as Phil and the drummers tinkered with the Scarlet theme. It became apparent that they were completely abandoning Scarlet on this occasion for a full out assault on Fire on the Mountain. The music came to a complete one second stop before Phil explosively led the band into Fire. Jerry proceeded to run wild with a striking instrumental followed by the band restating the irresistible two chord groove. Not satisfied, Garcia unloads with another torrid instrumental before stepping up to sing. That five minute opening is the definitive start to any Fire, and one of two special highlights from this show. Overall, it’s No Cornell, but the Chicago Fire of 1977 might be second best of the year.

For the third straight night the second set began with Samson and Delilah. After singing the final “If I had my way,” Bertha immediately appeared like it was shot out of a cannon. Another well played Estimated Prophet gaves way to a short drum interlude that was clearly a prelude to The Other One. Phil uncharacteristically missed an opportunity to drop his opening bombs as a loose psychedelic journey emerged. In no hurry and without a lot of conviction, our fearless leader (Jerry) went off on a reconnaissance mission and the band makes no real attempt to guide him back into The Other One. After 8 minutes of noodling, the jam started sounding like a Dark Star or Mind Left Body jam. Mesmerized by his creative journey, the rest of the band and audience just watched and listened. After 13 minutes, Garcia signaled for the rest of the band to jump into the Other One. It’s a beautiful piece of improvisation worthy of repeated listens.

A few more minutes of meandering led to a fine Stella Blue with a strong Goin’ Down the Road on its heels. It was Thursday night, but Weir opted for a joyless One More Saturday Night followed by a U.S. Blues encore. This show has a lot of character with some standout highlights and was better than the previous night. However, as far as May 1977 is concerned, these Chicago concerts are the least impressive. That says a lot for the quality of music the Dead were outputting. The next five concerts are immense.

5-12-77…Chicago Auditorium Theatre

Opening night in the Windy City starts with a romping Bertha complete with a spry solo from Jerry. A large part of this set is forgettable due to a pedestrian set list and a sub par bassy audience recording with a lot of hooting and hollering. The last two songs of the set made this a worthwhile listen. I caught my first Mississippi Half Step of this retrospective tour. In typical ’77 fashion it smoked with an outstanding final jam courtesy of Jerry. A unique Dancin’ in the Streets with intriguing shifts in tempo closes out the set.

Samson/ Brown Eyed Women/ Estimated was pretty good in St. Paul, I certainly didn’t need to hear these same second set openers on consecutive nights. The Samson had some extra kick. The set proceeded with Donna singing Sunrise, WTF??? I was excited to hear my first Terrapin Station, although it went by in a flash. Playin’ in the Band brought the promise of some wild jamming. Those ideas were squashed when the band aborted the mission quickly for a drum solo. The lack of creative song choice continued with Not Fade Away>Comes a Time>Playin’. This seemed to be the best performed part of the show, but that’s where the audience recording really starts screwing up. The tape that was transferred must have been warped as serious speed and pitch problems interfered with my enjoyment of those tunes.

I’d love to hear good quality of the Half Step, Dancin’ and NFA>Comes a Time>Playin’ because I’m filing these CDs back into my storage facility permanently. Even on an off night, there are still a couple two, three gems here.

Dancin in the Streets 5-12-77 mp3

5-11-77… St Paul Civic Arena…St. Paul, Minnesota

With a herd of anxious freaks in hot pursuit, the Dead set up camp in the Midwest, after being ensconced in the East for a 14 show stint. They name checked several U.S cities during the opening Promised Land, but finally pinned their location as Weir sang, “ I met her accidentally in St Paul, Minnesota,” during an early appearance from Big River in the third spot. The first five songs had a pleasant aura surrounding them as the boys prepared for an unprecedented conclusion to the set.

About four years ago I acquired this St Paul show. I listened to it two or three times before filing it away until now. I was stunned by how good the rest of this set is starting with robust versions of Ramble on Rose and Jack Straw in succession. Probably the best version of Peggy O to date followed. Garcia really nailed a stand out solo. Marty Robbin’s El Paso was the next appetizer as I was getting road weary just listening to this set - New York, Wichita, Detroit, Santa Fe, Cheyenne, Tulsa, on and on it went. To compliment the country and traditional tunes, they followed with a rousing Hunter/ Garcia gem, Deal, to wrap up this slice of Americana.

Phase three of the first set was a Garcia mind-melt showcase. Lazy Lightning/Supplication was a furious psychedelic treat with Lesh and Garcia improvising off of each other during a torrid Supplication jam. All portions of this musically arcane arrangement were executed with brisk precision. Lesh didn’t want stop as he ran through Supplication’s ending unleashing a spine-tingling bomb. You gotta love these 1977 first sets with all the new songs that were introduced or improved after the band reemerged from their year and a half hiatus/ retirement in 1976. One such tune that blossomed into maturity during 1977 was the following set closer Sugaree. This St. Paul version was not as long as the legendary versions from later in the month, but it was intense and a grand set closer. Checking in at around 14 minutes, the first two jams almost exclusively featured Garcia picking away in Helter Skelter fashion. A sensational set was in the books and an animated Lesh exclaimed,” We’re gonna take a short break, do whatever you want!”

Like the previous show in Buffalo, three stand alones opened the second set. Keith really tinkled the ivory during a tight Samson opener that was proceeded by uplifting presentations of Brown Eyed Women and Estimated, although I prefer the latter when it goes into another song.

The next three song shuffle, Scarlet>Fire>Good Lovin began and ended with a bang. Jerry was blistering along early in the Scarlet outro jam, but the band seemed fixated on going into Fire while Donna was still vocalizing Scarlet. That amazing transcendental playing from Cornell wasn’t recaptured. Most Scarlet>Fires from 1977 are a little disappointing and inferior to Cornell in every way. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that this combo would soar again on a regular basis. The band had a tendency to cut off Scarlet way too soon in ’77. Jerry jumped into Fire with some sweet instrumental leads before the signature slide melody. The rest of this Fire was short and lackluster. Thankfully, Good Lovin’ was there to save the day. I was surprised by the upbeat tempo and the excitement in Garcia’s solo. This is a completely different animal from the 80’s versions with the long Weir rap. Jerry is inspired and this version ends with a dramatic fanfare crescendo.

Uncle John’s Band kicks off phase three of set two (I like the way both sets break down into three neat phases, very symmetrical). Garcia’s fingers must have been dancing around the fret board like a spider hopped up on bennies. The playing was gripping, but the song went by quickly, so Garcia extended UJB with an exiting instrumental that segued into a 1974-like space jam. Playing almost exclusively solo, Jerry locked into a few minutes of brilliant blues and jazz riffs before unwinding into a relaxed Wharf Rat. Revving it up one more time for the faithful, a head-banging Around and Around was a satisfying conclusion. Around and Arounds from 1977 are a joy to listen to.

During the encore Jerry sang, “It’s time to leave this brokedown palace.” After this gig, I’m sure a lot of freaks decided to make the journey to Chicago for the next two-night stand, if it wasn’t already on their itinerary. This concert really surprised me; this retrospective journey I’m on is already paying dividends. 5-11-77 is a distinctive creation – a strange brew with inspirational performing. St. Paul ’77 will never be filed away in storage again.

Peggy O from St. Paul 5-11-77

5-9-77… War Memorial Auditorium…Buffalo, N.Y.

After a historic barnburner at Cornell, the Grateful Dead trucked up to Buffalo, land where the Deadheads roam. The beloved Help on the Way> Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower combo kick started the ceremony. The band was picture perfect, but Jerry didn’t step out on anything. His playing was adequate, although there was no super-charged Jerry moments like there are on 2-26-77, 4-23-77, 4-29-77 and 6-9-77, but just hearing that trifecta in the opening slot is a feather in this show’s cap.

This unique first set raced forth with well played favorites like Tennessee Jed and Brown Eyed Women, as well as including Cassidy and Peggy, two songs in their embryonic stages that would go on to become opening set dandies. The band even found time to squeeze Donna’s much maligned number, Sunrise, into the eleven song set. It was the best Sunrise ever, ho ho ho. In the eight spot, Johnny Cash’s Big River was a force to be reckoned with. The band really locked into a tight groove here and Garcia hit pay dirt with an extended blitzkrieg on the last instrumental.

Born in 1976, Music Never Stopped was an exciting breath of fresh air – a spunky good-time rocker. On 5-9-77, it took a quantum leap forward, maturing into a set ending tour de force. The concluding instrumental suddenly doubled in length and intensity. Later in the year Music would develop a two- tiered instrumental structure featuring a substantial building jam prior to the big finale. These early versions have very short developing jams, the emphasis was on the finale and this one in Buffalo blew the roof off the joint. Layer by layer Garcia increased the intensity with the band in hot pursuit. Without redundancy, Jerry’s guitar playing was a tornado of ideas. There aren’t many better examples to illuminate Jerry’s rock-and-roll prowess. This is a must listen – there’s an mp3 of this frenetic masterpiece for your pleasure at the end of this mini-review. If you get a copy of this show, make sure you get either an audience recording or a soundboard with an audience patch. A widely circulating version of this show is missing 45 of the greatest seconds of Garcia’s career during that MNS. If you’re version of 5-9-77 fits the MNS on the first CD and times out at 79:58, you need to upgrade to hear the real deal.

Set two opens with Bertha>Good Lovin’ and Ship of Fools. I like those three jingles individually, but that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as commencing on a second set expedition is concerned. The dull triple shot opening was performed in a comatose trance, things could only get better and they did with a powerful Estimated Prophet. A rejuvenated Garcia explored the exiting jam for all its psychedelic possibilities and linked it to the Other One. Those songs made a fine connection and should have been hooked up for many more return engagements. The instrumental leading to the first verse was effective. After Weir did his vocal bit, Jerry seemed to be keen on jamming as he pecked away on some nice riffs. Unfortunately, the band decided to let Billy and Mickey have an unnecessary drum solo that killed the momentum.

Although it lacked the prior night’s explosiveness, a well played Not Fade Away emerged from the percussion segment. It melted into the perfect choice of the moment, Comes A Time. The band’s energy level was running on empty, so they turned to Jerry to deliver a poignant ballad and he came through in spades. The Captain sang his heart out with a concise piercing guitar solo in between. A well developed outro-jam gave way to a Sugar Magnolia which was the make or break song of the set. If it were rip-roaring, I would have to pay homage to this set. It flopped, big time. A great choice for an encore, Uncle John’s Band, was mediocre. This set had a lot of potential, but after three consecutive torrid affairs in New Haven, Boston, and Ithaca, they were out of gas. If you combine the first set of 5-9-77 with the second set of 5-8-77, you have the perfect beast.

Nusic Never Stopped 5-9-77 Audience Recording

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Catfish Files GD '77 Part One

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.


  In honor of the anniversary of Music Mountain, here’s chapter two from my latest work, The Grateful Pilgrimage: Time Travel with the Dea...