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Why Even Non-Heads Should Listen To Grateful Dead’s Famous Cornell Show From 40 Years Ago Today

Conrad Doucette is a writer and percussionist (Takka Takka, the National, Bob Weir) who co-curated and performed on last year’s massive Grateful Dead comp Day Of The Dead.

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The Grateful Dead played their first show on 5/5/65 at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor in Menlo Park, CA.

The Grateful Dead played their BEST show 12 years and three days later, on 5/8/77 at Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Or so many would have you believe.

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There can be no doubting the historicity of that first show — it’s objectively accurate that the Dead (or really, the Warlocks, their original name) played their first show on 5/5/65.

But 5/8/77? Their best show? That’s up for debate. A deeply enjoyable and deeply dank debate! But before we go any further, here’s the question you want answered: If I’m not a Deadhead should I listen to this show? The short answer is YES, POSITIVELY.

Whether you’re a very casual fan or a complete newbie, 5/8/77 is absolutely worth a peek, especially “Scarlet Begonias“>”Fire On The Mountain,” “Morning Dew,” and “Dancin’ In The Streets.” Put those on and keep reading.

So why is this seemingly random show in the spring of 1977 so revered? And where were the Dead at that point in their 35-year existence? Answers to the first question below, but first, here’s some context.

By the fall of 1974, the Grateful Dead — lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, pianist Keith Godchaux, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann — were frazzled to the point of exhaustion. Years of surging popularity were forcing them out of the theater-sized venues they felt were optimal for their songs, sound, and vibe. They’d spent ’74 lugging around the Wall Of Sound, Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s ahead-of-its-time sound system that threatened to bankrupt the band. And they were pushed to their physical limits by life on the road, the concomitant party lifestyle, and a scene of friends and hangers-on who were threatening to drown the band in desperately good vibes.

So, they took a break.

After a string of four “farewell” shows (documented in The Grateful Dead Movie) at Winterland, Bill Graham’s San Francisco uber-ballroom/mini-arena, the Dead went on their now-famous hiatus. The band members spent 1975 jamming, writing, and recording a new album (Blues For Allah), and playing the odd show (four in total).

Grateful Dead 3/20/77
CREDIT: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

By mid-1976, the Grateful Dead were emotionally and physically ready to return to the road. But this was a noticeably different Grateful Dead from the one which had said fare thee well in 1974. A preference for mid-tempo grooves was pronounced. Mickey Hart made a full-time return to the band, reinstating a double-drum attack. And the entire sheen of the sound seemed … slick.

And very ’70s.

By the time the 1977 spring tour came around, the post-hiatus Dead were in fine, fighting form. They were confident. The performances were strong. Unlike the Dead’s more flub-laden eras (much of 1994 and 1995, say), the band was TIGHT in May 1977. Shows were sharp and swagger-filled.

Not to say that the band was perfect, though. And 5/8/77 is by no means a perfect show. Weir and Godchaux aren’t in sync as “Dancin’” rolls into verse one — Weir comes in early, or perhaps Godchaux is late. A similar event occurs during the “lady finger” segment of “St. Stephen.” And there are some noticeable wrong notes from Garcia in “Morning Dew (and still, this version is generally considered the ‘best’ ever).

Not perfect, then, but perhaps “just exactly perfect,” an oft-used Weir-ism that nicely captures the particular grail the Dead were perpetually after.

And the new songs arrived fully formed. “Estimated Prophet,” debuted less than three months before, is wonderfully tense and soaring. “Fire On The Mountain,” even newer, is a monster of a groover, dripping with percussive dynamics, and punctuated by Garcia’s searing leads. Here, as ever, it’s tethered to “Scarlet Begonias” (“Scarlet”>”Fire” to the faithful).

That “Scarlet”>”Fire” is not only one of the highlights of 5/8/77, it’s one of the highlights of the Grateful Dead’s decades-long body of work. And yet it is one of only several jaw-dropping moments in 5/8/77. Looking for a reason to give this show a listen? Here are some.

Phil Lesh
Lesh’s bass is very much a star of this show. Throughout the Dead’s career, the bass guitar, in his avant garde-reared hands, was very much a second lead instrument. And throughout 5/8/77 especially, Lesh’s bass demands attention. Perhaps its most visible moment is in the opening seconds of “Scarlet Begonias,” as he lets loose glissando after gooey glissando, bursting with warmth and bounce. Listen especially between 0:08 and 0:34:

And it’s not just the sliding between notes that are ear-catching, but also the register — Phil Lesh isn’t afraid to hit those high notes, often in staccato pulses.

Lesh exhibits similar behavior in “Dancing,” with the nimble and dexterous runs resulting in funked up, elastic ecstasy. It’s the caliber of playing that won Lesh his diehard supporters, forever seeking seats in the “Phil Zone” at shows, and sporting fan-made “Lesh Is More” shirts in the lot. And speaking of “Dancin’”…

“Dancin’ In The Streets”
The epitome of “disco Dead” (see also: “Shakedown Street“). Fat, effected Garcia guitar in full effect. High and heavenly riffing from Weir. A wonderful, head-bobbing, straight-ahead beat from the Rhythm Devils (Kreutzmann and Hart). And over 16 minutes of all of this sun-drenched beauty. An exercise in brevity it’s not, though with the Dead, less is generally not more (though, as previously stated, Lesh IS). #BassGreatLeshPhilling

Morning Dew
“Morning Dew,” a perennially relevant Bonnie Dobson original set in the aftermath of a nuclear event, is one of the totems of the Grateful Dead performing song base. From the ‘60s through to the Dead’s end in ’95, “Morning Dew” was a steady feature of the group’s repertoire. As performed by the Dead, “Morning Dew” presents foreboding progressions, gorgeously morose vocals by Garcia, and, most notably, a closing solo/instrumental passage that builds to perhaps the most cathartic crescendo in the Grateful Dead canon, a final line (“Guess it doesn’t matter anyway”) from Garcia, before the whole foundation comes crumbling down. Here, “Morning Dew” ends the set — and really, what could follow it?

The sound
This is one of the best-sounding eras of the Dead. Everything pops. And sonically, each instrument comes through cleanly and distinctly — little is muddied. Go to Spotify or Tidal or what have you and listen to the beginnings of “Scarlet Begonias” or “Dancin’ In The Streets” — you’ll want to take a running leap and cannonball into the sonics.

In fact, the Dead’s aural aesthetic in 1977 is so honey-slicked and sweet that even the dead air (heh) is righteous. Have you heard this? It’s a seamless edit of all of the Dead’s between-song “tuning”/noodling in ’77. Not only is it listenable, but it’s enjoyable in its own swaying and mesmerizing way. White noise, ’77 style.

So yeah, 5/8/77 is amazing, a must-have tape, as we tape collectors used to (and still) say. But isn’t it unusual that one particular show in the late ’70s has occupied such an exalted place in Dead lore? Ultimately there are two reasons responsible for the lofty status of 5/8/77: ubiquity and sound quality.

In the late ’80s, the so-called Betty Boards began to circulate. Betty was Betty Cantor-Jackson, a sound engineer who recorded hundreds of Dead shows in the ’70s. For financial reasons, Cantor-Jackson’s storage space was put up for auction, and many of her pristine recordings began to circulate. Because of the quality of both the sound and performance, 5/8/77 spread far and wide. Everyone had 5/8/77. (I had it on two Maxell XL II 90s.) And it was generally the best-sounding tape in any given collection. Whether trading tapes through the mail, or talking with fellow heads in the parking lot at a show, 5/8/77 was a common touchstone.

And as a result of those Betty boards being auctioned off into the public sphere, and not falling into the ownership of the Dead, 5/8/77, the long-established “best show ever,” was never officially released. The band didn’t own the recordings. Last year, however, the Dead managed to secure ownership, barely making today’s 40th anniversary deadline.

And so here we are. A show long known (thanks to the ’80s circulation of those Betty board tapes). A show long revered (thanks to the quality of performance). And a show repeatedly listened to (thanks to the pristine quality of the original tapes).

And we haven’t even gone into the intangibles: the odd but beloved-by-heads “Take A Step Back” ditty/crowd-admonition that opens the second set (placed at the beginning of “Scarlet Begonias” on the new release) — widely held to be the best “Take A Step Back” ever (yes, Deadheads rank these things). The stunning run of songs in the first set, including “Row Jimmy” (one of Garcia’s favorites of his own songs), the mildly rare and beloved “They Love Each Other,” and a mid-set “Jack Straw” before the Weir/Barlow original would settle into its usual show-opening slot. Not to mention the chuckle-inducing fact that the Grateful Dead’s “best show ever” opens with “Minglewood Blues,” a stalwart of Weir’s first-set blues slot, loved just fine but never considered to be worthy of, say, opening the Dead’s best show ever (or any Dead show).

And finally, there’s the Prankster-ish presence of “One More Saturday Night,” a fab but simple party song, here existing in the encore slot (on a Sunday night). I guess the band didn’t even want to try topping that second set-closing “Morning Dew.”

So is 5/8/77 the best Grateful Dead show ever? Probably not. Personally, I’m partial to a few ’74 shows, or 9/19/90, or something from late 1968, or the 1990 spring tour (my first show!) or 6/17/91 (I was at that, too — yes, I’m biased, and personal biases alway figure into these things). And if you’ve read more than one article on May ’77, you might have read that some consider the previous night, or the following night, to be even better. I wouldn’t disagree.

In fact, I listened to my 5/9/77 (Buffalo) tape far more than I did my 5/8/77. And I’m happy to celebrate that show, too.

Cornell 5/8/77 is out now via Rhino as a 3CD and 5LP set, and digitally.

Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip documentary (executive produced by Martin Scorsese) hits theaters 5/26 and Amazon Prime Video on 6/2.

Watch a mini-documentary on 5/8/77 below.