Momentum surged throughout 1976 as the Dead returned to doing what only they can do. Their 10-9-76 Oakland show was the high point of the year, and their New Year’s Eve show was a celebration of the progress they made during their comeback; and simultaneously, it was a blueprint for the storied year ahead. More than any other New Year’s Eve performance, 12-31-76 meshed the past and future as it shined in the moment.
The ’76 New Year’s Eve soiree was held in Daly City’s Cow Palace on the outskirts of San Francisco. The cow is sacred in India, and the Cow Palace is sacred in Grateful Dead folklore. They only played there twice. On March 24, 1974, the completed Wall of Sound was unveiled for the first time in Cow Palace, and “Scarlet Begonias” and “Cassidy” were debuted.
The New Year’s Eve show gets off to an unassuming start with six ordinary selections. The last song of the set, “Playin’ in the Band,” is an enormous effort, and one of the last times that “Playin’” would be performed in its entirety without being segued into another tune. The long, active jam is filled with creative twists and turns, and it salvages what was shaping up to be a well-played but dull set.
This show gets filed in the ’76 archives. It’s ironic that the best set of the year actually begins as the clock ticks the opening seconds of 1977. A complete “Sugar Magnolia” opener with “Sunshine Daydream” launches the new year, although it’s not a spectacular version. As “Sunshine” ends, Garcia strikes with “Eyes of the World.” The opening solo steams—raw euphoria as the band rages. Jamming with scary precision, The Grateful Dead are Masters of the Universe. All the instrumental passages smolder, and “Eyes” eventually melts into “Wharf Rat.” This is a rare pairing that the band would revisit in the Hollywood Sportatorium on 5-22-77. I like the “Rat” early in the set. It clears the way for heavy hitters later.
A transitory Drums interlude jumps into “Good Lovin’.” This version is the third one with Bobby singing lead vocals, and this arrangement burns with funky chord riffs à la ’72. The idea of Good Lovin’ > Samson and Delilah wouldn’t thrill most Deadheads looking at a set list, but on 12-31-76, it’s a minor masterpiece. This distinctive “Samson” has the funkiest groove of them all. A standalone “Scarlet Begonias” follows, and it’s one of the last of its kind because “Fire on the Mountain” was on the horizon. In Cow Palace, the birthplace of “Begonias,” the post-verses jam scrambled the minds of Deadhead Nation, and the playful ending was delightful.
“Around and Around” steps into its prime as the band celebrates the power of their evolving sound. The skillful shifting of tempo and the cage-rattling rock previews powerhouse versions to come. There’s a two-second stoppage before the band hops into Help on the Way > Slipknot! This musical flow embodies the spirit of ’76 “Slipknots!” with a spacey instrumental that noodles on and on until it tumbles into Drums. Most future versions of this rich instrumental would dutifully transition into “Franklin’s Tower.” The “Slips” from ’77, and ’83–85 provided some of the best jamming from those years, but the full potential and possibilities of “Slipknot!” were probably never realized or explored.
Phil pumps away with Billy and Mickey during this second brief drum interlude. This set contains two hours of intense and focused improvisation with minimal meandering. The Dead bounce into “Not Fade Away” and the jams continue to smolder. We can debate what the best year for the band is and why we feel that way. However, there’s a unified professionalism as the Dead enter ’77, and it’s present throughout the entire year. The 12-31-76 “Not Fade Away” is a precursor to the sensational ’77 renditions. As an instrumental “NFA” fanfare rings out, Phil hits the unmistakable blast announcing, “Morning Dew.”
“Walk me out in the morning dew, my honey.” Jerry’s voice covers the Cow Palace like a velvet blanket. The patient commitment of the band is admirable bordering on heroic. At the end of a marathon performance, the band digs in and commits to each note with heart and soul. Keith’s piano playing sets the sacred and solemn tone. They say it takes ten years to truly master your craft, and perhaps that explains how brilliant this “Dew” and the ensuing ’77 versions sound.
This Cow Palace “Dew” is a steady barrage of unrelenting magic that places it in the pantheon of killer “Dews.” This must be the longest “Dew” jam as Garcia taps into all his creative genius and the band reads his thoughts. Jerry scurries along, slicing and dicing like a hibachi chef. If you like lobster meat, that’s what Chez Garcia is serving. As the jam boils, Cow Palace is enchanted, engaged, and fully under The Dead’s spell. Jerry concludes the ceremony with a final sigh, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” and the set is closed with a thunderous instrumental exclamation point. The one thing that this “Dew” is missing is an incredible closing crescendo like Cornell. Yet the Cow Palace “Dew” is an elite performance of this revered anthem.
Like Cornell, 12-31-76 closes out an epic set with “Morning Dew,” and a “One More Saturday Night” encore follows. The New Year’s Eve revelers are treated to a bonus encore performance of Uncle John’s Band > We Bid You Goodnight. And like several legendary ’77 shows, Cow Palace has a unique set list and flavor that separates it from the pack. The dawn of a new Dead era had arrived.
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