On the evening of May 8th, exactly thirty-five years ago tonight, two remarkable things happened at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A beautiful spring afternoon suddenly turned to dropping temperatures, and by nightfall a light snow was falling on the campus; meanwhile, in a campus auditorium, Barton Hall, one of the greatest improvisational rock bands in history was performing
what would later come to be known as their greatest concert.
The Grateful Dead are well known for their improvisation as well as the devotion their fans have shown to them and to the preservation of their live performances. (Here is a nice photo looking up from the taper section at a Grateful Dead concert in 1980.
) Almost 2,200 Grateful Dead concerts were carefully recorded on tape by fans and preserved; and today, almost all of these recordings can be found in the massive collection of recordings on the Internet Archive's Grateful Dead section
Among those recordings, however, this night's performance – May 8th, 1977 – has a place of pride among fans as the archetype of Grateful Dead concerts, and perhaps the most perfect show they ever played. Disputes about this question are of course endless, but one point most agree on is that this concert is an excellent place to start if one wishes to get into the Grateful Dead; tens of thousands of people were introduced to the Grateful Dead through this tape, which remains the most popular live recording of the band.
The highlights of this show were many. If you'd rather quit reading and just listen, you can skip to one of the high points of the show: the "Scarlet Begonias" -> "Fire On The Mountain" medley
. This show is almost certainly the best recorded instance of the Dead playing those two songs together; the breezy, joyous transition between the songs is seamless and perfect. But there are other moments that should be noted. Jerry's keening solo on "Loser
" is gorgeous; the band's freshly reworked (but complicated) rendition of "Dancing In The Street
" came off effortlessly; and the "St Stephen > Not Fade Away > St Stephen
" medley in the second set is electrifying.
Present that night were the core members of the Grateful Dead – Jerry Garcia
and Bob Weir
on vocals and guitar, Phil Lesh
playing the bass and singing, and Bill Kreutzmann
and Mickey Hart
playing the drums. Also with the band were Keith Godchaux
, who had played keyboard for the past six years, and his wife, Donna Jean Godchaux
, who sang.
The Full Setlist
· New Minglewood Blues
This song was a common fixture at Grateful Dead concerts from 1966 onward; it is an old song, first recorded by Noah Lewis, the author, in 1928. Here is a good history of the song. As usual, Bobby is singing here.
This song was a composition by the Dead's premier songwriting duo, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Here is the "Annotated 'Loser'" page, which gives a good overview of the song. Jerry sings this song.
· El Paso
A cover of the famous Marty Robbins tune which the Grateful Dead were fond of playing.
· They Love Each Other
A warm tune from the Hunter/Garcia songbook. Annotated.
· Jack Straw
A song by Bob Weir with lyrics penned by Robert Hunter; Annotated.
Another Hunter/Garcia composition. Annotated.
· Lazy Lightnin' > Supplication
A song by Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow, the Grateful Dead's second songwriting team. Annotated.
· Brown Eyed Women
A Hunter/Garcia tune. Annotated.
· Mama Tried
A cover of the Merle Haggard classic which appeared frequently in Grateful Dead concerts in the late 1970s.
· Row Jimmy
By Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. Said Robert Hunter: "I really feel that 'Row Jimmy' is happening in New Mexico." Annotated.
· Dancing In The Street
A cover of the Motown tune originally recorded by Martha and the Vandellas The Grateful Dead played this song throughout their career, but in 1977 they trotted out a newly-reworked version that was a bit more jaunty and syncopated. It was a complicated song to play in concert, so in a few years the band went back to the original arrangement – but this is one of the best examples of them playing the reworked version just right.
· Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain
A famous medley, perhaps the most famous among Grateful Dead medleys. Both lyrics were penned by Robert Hunter; the tune of "Scarlet Begonias" was written by Jerry Garcia, whereas "Fire On The Mountain" was written by Mickey Hart. Annotated "Scarlet;" Annotated "Fire."
· Estimated Prophet
A tune by John Perry Barlow and Bob Weir. Said Bob of this song: "The basis of it is this guy I see at nearly every backstage door. There's always some guy who's taken a lot of dope and he's really bug- eyed, and he's having some kind of vision. He's got a rave he's got to deliver." Annotated.
· Saint Stephen > Not Fade Away > Saint Stephen
This is Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia's song (annotated, and here's a great deconstruction) sandwiching the classic Buddy Holly composition.
· Morning Dew
This is a cover of a folk tune by the Canadian Bonnie Dobson. Here is the original recording from 1962.
· One More Saturday Night
A song that was written by Bob Weir, and has lyrics that were sort of by Robert Hunter. This song was actually one of the reasons Bob Weir and Robert Hunter didn't like writing together; Robert Hunter so disliked the changes Bob wanted to make to the lyrics that he said Bob Weir should just take it and not credit him. It's worth pointing out that here they are performing the song on a Sunday night.
Thankfully, not only one but many recordings of that evening remain. Here is a selection of the better ones:
Jerry Moore's audience recording.
Jerry Moore was legendary in the Grateful Dead community; he was the original editor of the Grateful Dead fan magazine, Relix, and became well known as a capturer of notoriously good "mouth of the beast" recordings (from the apex of the speakers about 10 feet from the stage.) Of the audience recordings I've heard of this night, Jerry Moore's is the best.
Jeff Stevenson's audience recording.
Jeff Stevenson was also a memorably good taper. This is another "mouth of the beast" recording, and while slightly less clear than Jerry's, it sometimes seems a bit more immediate and a little warmer, at least to my ear. Also, note that this recording was transferred to digital by Jeff Stevenson himself.
Steve Maizner's audience recording.
This is another well-regarded audience recording which sounds to me to be from a little further back in the audience. It has very good ambience, and nice clarity.
Betty Cantor's soundboard recording.
Betty Cantor is a famed figure in the Grateful Dead's history. After the big bust
in New Orleans in 1970, Owsley "Bear" Stanley
went to federal prison for two years, and the Grateful Dead were left without their producer and lead technician. Betty Cantor, who was already a fixture as an assistant on tours, stepped in and took over production duties and sound for live shows, a duty which she performed for the next two decades. (A few nice pictures of her behind the boards can be seen here
. Bear had been aciduous (geddit?) about carefully taping and labeling each show; Betty retained this habit, and in fact was often making three and even four recordings simultaneously, especially on the Europe '72 tour. Here is a good interview with her from 1995 regarding her recordings
, which have been known among tapers as "the Betty Boards."
As Betty notes in her interview, through an unfortunate series of events her entire personal collection disappeared when she lost her house over a dispute about payment with the band. That misfortune was in some ways a boon for fans, however, because it meant that these tapes were soon disseminated among fans. The Barton Hall tape in particular, in high quality, happened to be circulated early and often. Because of this, it was the "first tape" for thousands upon thousands of new Grateful Dead fans.
Since the dawn of the internet age of tape trading, it's become much easier to refine and perfect these recordings. A popular form now is the "matrix recording" – a combination of two or more sources, spliced together carefully. Among many tapers, soundboard recordings, while of the highest quality and perfection, can sometimes sound "flat" or "dead," and can lack the excitement that can be felt from the crowd. For this reason, a recording that is a combination of the audience and soundboard recordings can be the best.
My own personal favorite recording of this concert is a matrix of Jerry Moore and Steve Maizner's audience recordings, combined with the pristine "Betty Board" soundboard recording. You can listen to it in streaming format it here