For anyone who read my most recent posts, you know I was not a fan of the music-making that took place in Santa Clara, CA. at the Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead celebration. To clarify, my intent is not to diminish the experience of those who were there or those who genuinely loved the music. So much goes into a concert experience and these particular concerts are so very emotionally charged. I’ve not talked to one single person who was in attendance in either Santa Clara or Chicago who did not remark on the amazing energy that was present in both stadiums. Through the roof. The outpouring of love must have been tremendous. That experience in itself transcends the quality of the music-making, no question. The sheer celebration and flood of emotional and spiritual experiences. The sheer importance of this music in our lives, this bond we share through it, the journeys we’ve taken both internally and externally, the absolute life-affirming nature of the entire Grateful Dead experience.
Let me begin by saying I love these guys. I’ve been a hardcore DeadHead since 1975. It was a joy to see Phil Lesh smiling and having so much fun up there on stage for the first night of the 5-night Fare Thee Well 50th celebration of the Grateful Dead with the “core-four” remaining members of the band plus guests.
For many of us, there is no Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia. But the songs themselves and Garcia’s legacy seem to be (and hopefully are) undying; The spirit of the band, the essence of the music and all that it has inspired. And the band certainly tried to capture that spirit with what might well be the most ballsy setlist imaginable for a first night gig of this long-anticipated reunion. It was a DeadHead dream come true in terms of song choices. Not a single post-1970 tune was played. The jams were long and casual. Incredible rarities like Cream Puff War and What’s Become of The Baby were played, as well as one of the most beloved trifectas of all time, Dark Star-> St. Stephen-> The Eleven (with the William Tell bridge!!!). On the surface, this looks amazing. Unfortunately in my opinion, the quality of musicianship on display could not match the clear and loving intent of all involved.
I post the below article written by Stewart Sallo in the Boulder Weekly titled LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD not because I agree with it, but to represent part of the experience Dead-Heads are having. This article is far more cynical than I am. I would prefer to believe the remaining members of the Grateful Dead had the best of intentions here in trying to satisfy the many needs involved. And I think it turned out to be a far greater beast than any of them anticipated.
Perhaps that’s naive, I dunno. I can certainly see it as an opportunity to both celebrate the Grateful Dead’s 50 years AND make some money. This is, after all, one of the ways in which these guys earn their living. And they’ve hit retirement age now. They still play music, but they no longer tour and they rarely cut albums. So yes, this was also a chance to make some money. I hold no grudge with that. Artists should be paid and paid well. It’s just unfortunate that this event has also created much heartache and disappointment for many.
We all knew that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead were probably going to do SOMETHING to celebrate the 50 year mark. I was curious and a little uncertain about how I felt at the idea of celebrating the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary 20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death. Since that epic loss, the Grateful Dead‘s remaining members have played both together and separately, but never under the moniker “Grateful Dead.” And appropriately so, in my opinion. Jerry Garcia wasn’t just a guitarist, he was one of the main reasons the Grateful Dead sound and energy existed at all.
It’s always been a challenge for me explain to non-Dead Heads what the Grateful Dead experience is for me. It’s been such a lifelong love, has moved and changed me in so many ways, opened me up to things I never knew existed. It enhanced and strengthened my desire and ability for exploration, both externally and internally. And it showed me the power of music when it reaches beyond the limitations of studio recordings, but incorporates live improvisation and a desire to both channel and express emotion.
Spring 1977 is largely considered one of the Grateful Dead’s best tours. So much so, in fact, there’s a 5 show box set that’s just been released by the Grateful Dead and Rhino (the keepers of the Dead’s massive musical vault) this week. But for me, the magic didn’t end with the completion of the spring ’77 tour. It was simply being ushered in by it. The Dead’s fall tour of that same year, followed by the 4-show New Year’s run at Winterland and into the spring tour of 1978, contains some of my favorite shows of all time. In fact, that Winterland run should be released as its own box set along with the 3-camera black and white video that was shot by the Bill Graham folks. If ever there was a treat for DeadHeads, that would be it. When was the last time you saw Jerry doing Pete Townsend windmills? Sure, the video isn’t up to today’s Hi-Def standards, but it’s still incredibly revealing and energetic and such a rare and beloved piece of history for anyone who loves the Dead that to NOT release it in the best quality possible may actually be considered a hate-crime in some countries.
The tightness and beauty, mixed with a high rockin’ energy that came to characterize the Spring 1977 tour, only intensified as the year rolled forward. Garcia seemed uncontainable throughout this period: wide grins and guitar-slams so intense and heartfelt you’d think Garcia was trying to make the music reverberate straight through the center of the earth itself. And perhaps it did. The fierceness with which Garcia played throughout this period brought the band to new heights and each and every member of this touring circus rose up to meet Garcia. Sometimes the effect was less “tight” than they had been in the past, but the savage joy that took its place fills me to the core.
One such show was the Dead’s final show of their 1977 Fall tour. The Dead always loved playing New York and the Broome County Arena in Binghamton was no exception. This gig not only closed the tour, but an astounding three-night N.Y. run.
The first set is so magnificently tight and masterful. And the soundboard recording available streaming on Archive.org is one of the most beautiful mixes I have ever heard. Each and every instrument is clear in the mix. Vocals are sharp and confident in a way that is rare for Dead recordings of any kind. And Garcia’s voice is so soft and melodic with traces of that early 70’s Garcia sound. Keith is uncharacteristically high in the mix and it is such a joy to hear what he is doing here. His contribution to the band’s sound is unparalleled. And to hear the nuances and intricate exclamation points created by Bobby will make your hairs stand on end (in that good way). Even Donna, who many complain was off-key more often than not, is in prime and delicate form here. If you ever wondered why Jerry loved singing with Donna so much, this recording and show will answer that question for you.
The second set isn’t as tight as the first. Some botched lines and slightly less-certain moments do crop up, but they are met with laughter and some of the most creative work-arounds I have ever heard, eliciting even more energy and commitment from the boys. It’s a show that one simply cannot stop listening to.
The show’s opening MISSISSIPPI HALFSTEP is among the best I’ve ever heard. So much pure energy and storytelling, it threatens to blow the roof off the place. This is followed by one of the best JACK STRAWS I have ever heard (in my opinion, Spring 1978 was the peak for JACK STRAWS so this is on the precipice of that moment in time). I would dare say that most every song in this first set is in competition for best version ever. If it’s not the best, it’s among the top 5. The MINGLEWOOD/DUPREES DIAMOND BLUES combo alone makes it all worthwhile. And the MUSIC NEVER STOPPED closer just lilts and roars.
The Sunday-appropriate SAMSON opener for the second set shows that the boys hadn’t lost their energy during the break. And Donna’s SUNRISE may make believers out of non-believers. One of the best ever. The SCARLET-FIRE that follows is not as tight as the rest of the show (though it’s no slouch!) with Jerry forgetting lines and even disappearing for a while (broken string? Bathroom break?), but this just spurs on more creativity and a clear desire to make up for lost time. Once the boys kick into GOOD LOVIN’ and then ST. STEPHEN, we’re off and running again straight through to the end of the show and a rockin’ TRUCKIN’ set closer.
There’s just something about this era for the Grateful Dead that moves me. Hell, there’s something about every era of the Dead that moves me, but this period speaks to something deep inside, something primal. It encapsulates both the grace, beauty and ferociousness that I most love about the Grateful Dead, mixed with the potent suspense and fire that is created out of risk and that the boys did so well when they allowed themselves to be vulnerable. All the while maintaining the musical clarity that came with being professional musicians at the top of their game.
If you’re less accustomed to this period of the band than others, or simply don’t know the band all that well, give this show a try. Not only might it knock yer socks off, but it will give you a prime example of why the Grateful Dead are considered such a wide mix of American musical styles in a way few bands have ever been. And why they are, still to this day, considered one of the greatest live bands in musical history and of such profound cultural importance. Not to mention, why they bring so many of us so much unabashed joy.