If the hundred or so Grateful Dead concerts that I attended over the years were represented as a upward thrusting parabolic curve, which I acknowledge is an awkward and weirdly mathematical way to look at so kaleidoscopic an experience, the high point would be smack dab in 1977 and the high point of that high point a certain Sunday evening in May that happened to be 40 years ago today.
I saw 20 or so Dead concerts in 1977, some 11 of them during the band's celebrated balls-out spring tour of the Northeast, and all of them either with roommates from the farm or other friends. Or both. My VW bus was like a cowboy's loyal horse who always knew the way back home, and the worst thing that happened that year, as well as over the three decades that I followed the Dead, was accidentally washing a baggie of pot I had left in the back pocket of dirty jeans after coming in off the road. This I did several times.
The Dead had been on fire from the first note of the first show of the tour at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where East Coast fans heard "Estimated Prophet" and "Terrapin Station," the latter played as a take-your-breath-away encore, for the first time.
With the cacophonous closing notes of "Terrapin" still ringing in our ears, we followed the band to Springfield, Massachusetts the following night and after a day of rest caught all three shows at the venerable Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, another day off the road before catching four of the five shows at the Palladium in New York City, then motored on to New Haven, Connecticut and two whole days off before embarking to Upstate New York and Cornell University in Ithaca. My traveling companion and relief driver for the Ithaca trip was roommate Rochelle, who was still a little jiggly from a near disaster outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven.
We had been hanging outside the arena before the show when a biker offered Chelle a toke on a joint. The telltale stench of the smoke alerted me that it had been dosed with angel dust, a powerful, harsh and sometimes deadly hallucinogen. She quietly passed out in my arms, but shortly revived.
Barton Hall is a drafty Gothic Revival pile at the south end of the Cornell campus. It seats about 5,000 people in unobstructed view splendor (there were a fire marshal-unfriendly 8,000 or so that evening) and has superb acoustics for a standard issue airplane hanger-type college fieldhouse.
The energy before any Grateful Dead concert of that era was sublime, but there was a heightened feeling of excitement at Barton because of the run of memorable shows over the previous weeks, a shared sense that the band was playing with a relaxed but focused abandon, and that this evening would be even more special.
While Barton arguably was my favorite show, my most cherished moment of many special moments -- and one I still recall with deep pleasure lo these many years later -- had come a few evenings earlier in the dimly lit second-floor balcony hallway at the Palladium as I took in a river of tie-dyed dervishes swooping and spinning in a cloud bank of blue marijuana smoke as the band galloped through an extended jam.
We had an extra ticket for Barton that Chelle gifted to a young man holding a "A Ticket For My Thoughts" hand-lettered sign on the apron in front of the fieldhouse, but declined his kind offer of a couple free hits of acid before we wandered into the already full hall.
Two things that demarcated the greatness of the spring 1977 tour were the lineup and song selection.
The lineup was the band's longest lasting. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia's melodic genius and improvisational powers were at their peak, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had matured but remained underappreciated, bass player Phil Lesh was the counterpoint to the band's wondrously polyphonic sound, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were as usual orchestrally percussive, pianist Keith Godchaux was not fighting off the nods and was yet to become one of the four Dead keyboard players to not die of stage fright, while Donna Jean Godchaux, whose presence didn't always add to the mix, was in reasonably good voice.
The song selection was mostly stuff that I loved and has seldom been played as crisply and note-for-note tight, let alone played with such an edge over the course of an entire show, which would have low as well as high points as live concerts typically do.
Categorizing the Dead is a fool's errand, but I'll try because it may give those of you not of the Dead persuasion some sense of who they were.
The short answer is that they were a psychedelic-tinged juggernaut whose jamming can seem unsophisticated to jazz aficionados, of which I happen to be one, but was not.
The long answer is that the Dead were an American band. Their songs -- and especially the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter collaborations , as well as those by Bob Weir and John Barlow -- mined rich veins of Americana, including Appalachian folklore, New Orleans mythos, Memphis blues and Wild West balladry, as well as some biblical narrative, dollops of generational angst and celebration of Sixties counterculture along with all those jams.
The Barton setlist reflected that:
New New Minglewood Blues (Cover of 1928 Cannon’s Jug Stompers song) / Loser (Garcia-Hunter) / El Paso (Cover of 1959 Marty Robbins hit) / They Love Each Other (Garcia-Hunter) / Jack Straw (Garcia-Hunter) / Deal (Garcia-Hunter) / Lazy Lightning > Supplication (Weir-Barlow) / Brown-Eyed Women (Garcia-Hunter) / Mama Tried (Cover of 1968 Merle Haggard hit) / Row Jimmy (Garcia-Hunter) / Dancin' in the Streets (Cover of 1964 Martha and the Vandellas Motown hit)
Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain (Garcia-Hart-Hunter) / Estimated Prophet (Weir-Barlow) / St. Stephen (Garcia-Lesh-Hunter) > Jam > Not Fade Away (Cover of 1958 Buddy Holly hit) > St. Stephen / Morning Dew (Bonnie Dobson)
One More Saturday Night (Weir, even if it was a Sunday night)
We're talking 19 or 20 songs, depending on how you count what, over a three-hour period. Yes, there was an intermission of indeterminate length (who the hell remembers?), but there were no let-ups and no low points, only quieter and more reflective moments in synch with a particular song or song sequence, while the second set built and then built some more.
It is that second set that has cemented the consensus view Barton may have been the best Grateful Dead show of all time. This is because, from my perspective, it captured the band's present, past and future.
The set kicked off with the Dead of the present.
That is, where the band then was in their 12-year existence -- an incendiary "Scarlet Begonias" which teased into a transcendental "Fire on the Mountain," arguably the band's best performance ever of this combo, before a brief return to "Scarlet Begonias." That duo was followed by "Estimated Prophet," a dystopian anthem to California that had debuted only weeks earlier and was belted out in fine voice by Weir and driven home by Garcia's dark guitar vamps.
Then there was the past.
The "St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen" jam was an homage to everything that had come before. The band had been performing variations on these classics -- although never the same way twice -- since those halcyon psychedelic days of the late 1960s when it played with a rawness that I loved and that indelibly marks their music of the era. The set closer was "Morning Dew," a post-apocalyptic ballad sung soulfully by Garcia that the band had played intermittently since debuting their cover of the Bonnie Dobson folk classic at the Human Be-In in San Francisco in January 1967.
The future looked promising, but would be problematic.
The Dead soldiered on for another 18 years before Garcia's death in 1995, but they seldom reached the levels of 1977-78, and didn't come close to the extraordinary surge in great songwriting that exemplified the 1969-1974 period. My last show was in 1991. Garcia -- besides not playing particularly well, and sometimes poorly -- didn't so much lead the band as limp along with it while he dealt with drug and related health issues. The Dead concert scene had gone from being laid back to stressful, especially after the 1987 release of In the Dark, a studio album made during Garcia's brief return to health following a coma that unexpectedly went double platinum and drew too many new followers with too many attitude problems.
|ONE OF THE BARTON BETTY BOARD MASTERS|
There was a wonderfully unexpected coda to that evening at Barton: It had begun snowing -- in May! -- and a fairly-tale (if not exactly virginal) white covered everything as we walked back to my bus.
The sounds of the Grateful Dead reverberated from several cars and vans in the parking lot below Barton, including freshly recorded tapes of that very evening's show. The band, which was pioneering in so many ways, not least in repeatedly pushing the envelope with its 586-speaker, 26-watt Wall of Sound system and other PA system breakthroughs that were the industry standards, had not just permitted Deadheads to tape their performances, but roped off a section reserved for tapers immediately behind the soundboard.
As Garcia said, "Once we're done with it, the audience can have it."
The Dead played 2,318 concerts from 1965 until Garcia's death in 1995, and more than 2,000 are available in one form or another, virtually all of which were traded, drawing in more and more fans as their circles of distribution widened, in an early technological example of what a Wall Street Journal reporter called "the power of free that Facebook and Google have since perfected."
I got a not bad if somewhat dense audience copy of Barton from a tape trading friend a week later. It had virtually no hiss, a telltale sign it was a copy of a copy or perhaps even a copy of the original, as later generation tapes would pick up more and more hiss with each subsequent rerecording and many of the tapes in my collection were virtually unlistenable. A fairly clean soundboard tape surfaced in the 1980s that had some flaws but was well above average in sound quality, and it has been copied two million or so times, according to Dead historian Blair Jackson, which further elevated Barton into the pantheon of greats. In 2011, Barton was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry although it had never been officially released.
The legendary Betty Cantor-Jackson was in the hall that night, and as was the band's wont, she fed the board mix directly onto two-track tapes that flawlessly captured the extraordinary clarity of the Dead's sound and reverberations from Barton, which is to say the room and the crowd. But some 1,000-plus Betty Boards, as the masterful products of the band's longtime recording engineer are affectionately called, became lost for years. When many of them, all flood damaged, were found in a barn in Petaluma, California, they initially were ransomed for $1 million.
Some of the tapes eventually were restored, which included minute speed corrections, and digital copies made. After a long, strange trip the Barton show finally was officially released as a three-CD set on May 5. If you're looking for just one live Dead concert to complement your collection of Copland and Coltrane, this is definitely it.
The set is sonically superb -- simply stunning even to the ears of someone like myself who has heard many thousands of hours of Dead concert recordings -- and true to Betty Cantor-Jackson's ethic, you can feel the hall and hear the multitudes. The sound is "beefy," as Cantor-Jackson herself describes it, and band, hall and crowd are all in a wondrously pleasing tonal syncronicity.
New York Times readers, of all people, elevated Barton above other legendary shows in a 2013 poll. There also is a new book out on the Barton show -- Cornell '77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall that is slightly longer than the title and worth a read if you're a hardcore fan.
A band that can sell out a 73-disk, 22-concert box set (of the Europe '72 tour) costing $450 in a matter of hours obviously has lasting power.
There is the "Grateful Dead Hour," which airs weekly on over 120 radio stations. SiriusXM satellite radio broadcasts the popular 24/7 Grateful Dead Channel. Its random mix of studio and live recordings affirms the view of old heads like myself that there just isn't a lot of Dead after 1978 that compares favorably to the torrent of masterpieces that came before, although I find the late-1980s songs "Throwing Stones" and "Standing On the Moon" to be exceptions.
It is 2017, and the Dead have gotten their third or fourth wind.
Which isn't bad considering that they primarily were a touring act and save for In the Dark (1987) never had a hit album. And were hated by many critics, although not as much as those many critics hated Deadheads, whom they suspected came more for the party than the music. There is some justification for that, but virtually all of my Deadhead friends went on to careers in medicine, technology and public service. Steve Jobs and Larry Page were Deadheads, as were Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and . . . uh, Steve Bannon.
Then there has been the welter of post-Garcia bands with one or more members of the original lineup, including The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur and Dead & Company, as well as the 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well reunion tour of all four surviving members. These bands have ranged from being good to being very good, but Garcia's absence leaves a hole that no one could ever fill. (After all, we loved Jerry more than words can tell.)
Meanwhile, the Dead have signed a long-term licensing contract with Rhino Entertainment to keep their flame burning brightly and the royalties flowing briskly. And Long Strange Trip, a Martin Bar-Lev and Martin Scorcese-produced documentary on the band, will premier in selected theaters on May 26 and later appear on Amazon Prime Video.
The Dead inspired a . . . uh, bumper crop of stickers back in the day, but I still remember one with particular fondness:
Who Are The Grateful Dead And Why Do They Keep Following Me?
Because after all these years, they still are.
Life can be messy, and so were the Grateful Dead. They never sought out fame, but for better or worse, fame found them. And killed Garcia. The great shows like Barton were truly awesome and the off shows not that bad. Their live canon has maintained a resiliency that betrays the Dead's great secret: They worked very hard at what they did. They did not merely execute their music, they made it fresh night after night after night.
And like the lyrics to "Scarlet Begonias" say, once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.