Review Summary: "I can't figure out, is this the end or beginning"
It is up to you to decide where this falls in the annals of Dead
By the middle of 1974 the Grateful Dead were burnt. They had become a traveling circus with their women, children, pets, friends, drug suppliers, and twice the road crew as anybody else. They needed the crew to set up the legendary Wall of Sound. The Wall of Sound was the best sound system ever, probably still to this day, but they were bleeding money, and it just wasn't fun anymore for anybody in the band . So they quit. Well, that's what they said, I have never read that anybody in the band actually believed that they were done, but that was their way of getting the heat off, and trim their enterprise of over half of their staff. They were nonconfrontational to a man, except Phil who was a bulldog, but even he couldn't bring himself to fire anybody, since anybody who worked for the band was a friend first, so they felt obligated. Taking a break rid them of most of the nonessential mouths to feed in their scene. They were still a working band as they recorded Blues for Allah during this time, also Garcia and Weir were touring with other bands Garcia with his band and Weir with his buddies Kingfish. They wanted to continue to be a touring band but had to figure out the logistics to sustain. So after a year and a half in June of 1976 they went back out on tour and started the second golden era of the Dead.
The band that came back was hot, newly rejuvenated with quite a bit of new material, a trimmed down traveling show, and a trimmed down playing style. The next 4 years would see them at their heights in playing and were giving high end energetic shows night after night. Mickey Hart was back as the second drummer, they lost Owsley Stanley (Bear) who was their sound engineer, who I think was in prison or running from prison still due to his LSD production in the late 60's. Either way the sound in the venue was better and the recording was crisper. Especially during May of 1977, when Betty Cantor-Jackson recording most nights. Betty had been with the band since the beginning, she knew their sound and it came through beautifully on tape. All of these circumstances lead to some of the best shows of their career, including this show from May 8, 1977.
The show in question is very famous and is renowned as being "the best" show the Dead had ever played. I am very hesitant to use the word "best" in any musical situation especially when it pertains to the Grateful Dead due to so many different aspects of the show including setlist, location, the sound of the recording, if you attended. Everybody has a very good reason for their favorite show and who can argue.
I'll be honest, this is not one of my favorite shows, but it is a hell of a show and should be appreciated for the great things that happened and the faults that every live performance would have. One of the main reasons that this show is so highly thought of is the great first set. I am generally a second set guy but this is a hot first set with good renditions of all the sounds with standouts being Lazy Lightening, Jack Straw, Deal, Mamma Tried. The playing is precise with no meandering, they were getting to the point, with yes some very short jamming. Another great reason to champion this show is the triplet to start the second set with Scarlet Begonias, Fire on the Mountain, and Estimated Prophet. These are played so fantastically with the perfect amount of energy and left themselves enough room to jam but did not lose themselves. Also, the very rare St. Stephen must have been a great surprise, along with maybe the best Morning Dew I've heard. It was all recorded beautifully by Betty and on the East coast where the Dead say they feed best off their audience.
There are many reasons to love this album as I have stated, but here are some reasons why I cant call this the best that they ever played. One reason is no Dark Star, which is probably their biggest and best vehicle to be who the Grateful Dead really are; which is a improvisational band turning on a dime, to venture to another far off space. On this night there is very little room for that type of thing. I would have liked them to stretch out on at least one song in the second set or at least a long transition. I would say that the biggest problem with this show is the disco version of Dancing in the Streets. I will admit that the dead do some pretty cheesy things and the disco version of Dancing is up there among the worst. Including that song in the set list is an automatic downgrade for me.
I encourage anybody to check out a good show from the Good Ole' grateful Dead. I truly believe that anybody can find something to like in this band. I also would like to push listening to all the shows from this month, the show just before and just after the Cornell show could also be on the list of best shows of all time.