Disclaimer: I recognize that this installment of Video Fridays may only appeal to music geeks like me, or maybe even to just Grateful Dead music geeks like me, but inspiration hit me and this is what I have to share today. That said, if there’s even a sliver of a chance that I can turn someone on to this music that I love so much, then my work here will not be in vain.
There’s an old Jewish saying that I love a lot.
Two Jews, three opinions.
Well, I’m convinced, after many years of debating the relative greatness of the different eras of the Grateful Dead‘s 30-year career, that it would be accurate to paraphrase the Jewish saying by substituting “Deadhead” for “Jew”.
A few days ago, Keith emailed, imploring me to go to Archive.org, a gold mine for Deadheads, and to listen to what some believe is the greatest show the Grateful Dead ever performed, out of their 2,317 total concerts, a show from a year, 1977, believed by many more Deadheads still, to be their best.
This was the legendary May 8, 1977 concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, NY.
Having been intimately familiar with this show for many, many years, dating back to when I owned a bootleg of it on cassette tape, now sadly lost, I was more than happy to listen to it again, and doing so led me and Keith to exchange a total of 38 emails and 100+ text messages over the next two days.
During the course of the discussion, I started out agreeing that 1977 was a great year and that the Barton Hall show was great, but I disagreed with Deadheads calling it “the best”, as I was of the opinion that this distinction was not important, and I mentioned that lately I’d been listening to and loving shows from 1974 more than any shows from other periods.
But then, I inevitably became lured into a 1977 immersion, listening to shows at Archive.org and watching shows on YouTube, and while I still don’t think it’s important to label 1977 “the best”, it absolutely was a VERY special year.
There are several factors that made it so, but one of the most striking things, clearly evident in Jerry Garcia’s smile in the lead photo I’ve included here, and as can be seen throughout the video below: as Jerry himself said, “We’re having fun again.”
The band had gone on a touring hiatus after their Fall 1974 tour, they only played four one-off shows in 1975, but when they resumed touring in 1976 and on into 1977, they had a bunch of new songs from their 1975 album Blues For Allah, and a bunch more from the album Terrapin Station, which they recorded in the winter of 1976 and would release in July of 1977. All of the studio time to make those two albums during the hiatus had two interesting side effects.
First, it demanded discipline, as studio time is expensive and records are for posterity, leading to consistent cohesion and tightness in their music.
Second, after a grueling 1974 tour, with their legendarily massive “Wall of Sound” sound system, a system that demanded they play on large stages, where they tended to spread out from each other like this:
…they set out on their 1976 tour with a a greatly reduced amount of sound equipment, and having enjoyed the confining spaces of a recording studio, they set up their gear very close together, and for most of their time onstage for the next few years they’d be huddled together, like this:
…paying really close attention to each other and playing off each other, often, as mentioned, smiling from the pure joy of it.
Time moves on, and due to a combination of the occasional internal strife that all bands struggle with, as well as having reached a level of maturity, musically, that no longer required them to play in such close proximity to each other, they gradually spread out on stage again, and from around 1980 onward, with the exception of the acoustic sets they did in the ’80s, they mostly looked like this:
So, yeah, 1977 was special, magical even, if you believe that music is magic, as I most decidedly do, and thanks to the Music Vault YouTube channel, another gold mine for Deadheads, we’re lucky to have access to a number of videos from 1976 and 1977, including the following treasure from the Spring ’77 tour, a full hour and 45 minutes from their April 26th show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey.
Again, just watch Jerry to see how much fun he’s having! That fun comes through the music in a most glorious way.
Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!