Thursday, June 27, 2013
"Inspiration, Move Me Brightly'-The Grateful Dead May 1977 Box Set-Part I -5-11-1977, 5-12-1977, 5-13-1977
The newest addition to the Grateful Dead's extensive collection of vault releases is the new and limited edition May 1977 CD box set. The collection spans fourteen CD's and encompasses the dates of May 11th through May 17th during the Dead's legendary and well documented Spring tour. I am now the proud owner of this collection and will travel through the set chronologically, ruminating on highlights, low lights, sound quality and other thoughts that may occur during the trip. This will most likely be a two part series because of the wealth of information involved. Well versed 'Deadheads' are aware of the plethora of quality performances that are found during this period of Grateful Dead history. The Boston, Cornell, and Buffalo shows taking place on the 7th, 8th, and 9th respectively are some of the most highly circulated and discussed performances from the tour due to unparallelled sound quality and monster performances. Ironically enough, these shows (along with others) do not exist in the Grateful Dead vault and are owned by an individual who wants an extremely high price for these master recordings. This is the only reason that the aforementioned recordings are not included in this May 1977 collection. Lucky for us at some point in the tale an enterprising Deadhead transferred these shows, hence the widespread circulation they see today. This is a very interesting and involved story that can be enjoyed here for those interested: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/11/26/121126fa_fact_paumgarten
As a testament to the power and majesty of these concerts, releases have already been culled from the May 19th, 21st and 22nd shows in the Dick's Picks series, May 25th is a Dave's Picks release, May 28th is an official live release titled 'To Terrapin', and the April 30th show was unearthed for the short lived 'Download Series". The 'May 77' box fills a gap in the middle of the month, post Cornell, and prior to the barn-burners to close out the tour. Every night contains a highlight and the band is operating at a level of consistency that they would not reach again until the late 1980's. Crisp and in tuned playing is the norm for this era in Grateful Dead history, with 'gestalt linkage' being displayed on a nightly occurrence, and in unparallelled sound quality (thanks to Betty Cantor recording genius). The band has never sounded more orchestrated or in control, and the recording media is brimming with warm reverb and balanced instrumentation. While opinions vary as to the 'greatest' year in Grateful Dead history 1977 is always in the running because of its consistency, sound quality, and runs of legendary performances.
The box begins in St Paul, Minnesota two days after the smoking Buffalo show finding the band in full swing with a boppin and weaving 'Promised Land opener. A long and involved first set includes detailed readings of "Ramble On Rose' and tour jewel 'Peggy-O in which it seems every version gets a little better every night. The set starts it's levitation from the earth with the charged 'Lazy Lightning/Supplication' that sets the stage for the set closing ride. During the grey area between the pair of songs Jerry deftly scurries over glimpses of melody, pausing for curly bends and hard punctuation. The real magic of the first set occurs in the set closing 'Sugaree'. In a rare first set finale position the song soars to opportunistic peaks and shakes it on two perfectly constructed jams by Garcia that reach swelling peaks. From perfectly placed fluttering hummingbird trills, to sustained swells, to full on scrubbing peaks, Garcia displays all of his guitar prowess on this beautifully constructed 'Sugaree'. In a month that has many top versions to enjoy, this one contains its own special charm. A well played and attention keeping set by the guys.
The second set opens with a trifecta of songs played almost every night of the tour, although normally reaching some nice peaks, there are numerous strong versions to choose from. 'Samson and Delilah', 'Brown Eyed Women', and the newly introduced 'Estimated Prophet'. 'Brown Eyed Women' would hit its peak during this tour, and this version is no different. 'Estimated' would require a bit more time in the oven, but these early performances are full of Garcia's liquid 'Mutron' effects and churning drums. The real meat of the second set begins with a 'Scarlet->Fire->Good Lovin' that while not reaching the high standards set during this tour (5-17 is the best 'S/F' of the box), features a amazingly developed middle section of 'Scarlet' with Godchaux and Garcia intertwining into a percussive peak that falls into the 'Wind in the willows verse'. The journey into the 'Fire' contains the sillage of other May 'Scarlet's' but is more delicate and slithers along quietly until at 8:25 Garcia hits upon an attention getting riff that ups the ante for the whole band. The band changes form and begins to gain momentum tumbling into the segue with well played dynamics. The entire group syncopates into the jumpy, 'Happiness is Drumming' groove, crisply executed, all elements of band fall together into place riding Lesh's recognizable bass figure into the melody of 'Fire on the Mountain'. Godchaux's playing scurries across the sound scape like a spider in shock from a turned on light in a dark room. Garcia's thick and rich Mutron tones drip sugary sweet tones that pour themselves into euphoric peaks,and unique melodies, eventually falling into a crowd pleasing 'Good Lovin'.
After a tuning break the band begins a king sized 1977 'Uncle John's Band' that then develops into a solo Garcia excursion following the coda of the song. A few of these Garcia extended solo spots can be found sprinkled throughout the Spring tour, either when Garcia's playing starts to negotiate twists and turns the band cannot keep up with, or when the band falls into a contemplative space and Jerry keep spinning the vortex. 'Uncle Johns Band' is played deliberately and with most of the lyrics remembered! The drummers are bouncing balls of a wall in perfect harmony, accents and poly rhythms driving the slightly Caribbean flavored 'Uncle John's. Quoted by Garcia as being a 'major effort' to compose and 'get right' playing it live, I believe this is the era when 'Uncle John's' joined songs such as 'Playin' as an important contributor to the improvised jams. 'Uncle John's could pop up as an encore, as a set opener, or as in the case of 5-19-1977, turned inside out in the middle of an extended jam. This version is watery, laid back, and really hits its stride during the outro jam, which returns to the vocal reprise and then starts to become a bit more shaded. At about 8:30, Garcia starts to dig away at 'Uncle John's' and the band follows him into the cool and dark recesses of his discovered cave. Lesh hits large singular notes that Garcia decorates with sparkling repetitive picked swells, the drummers move to the cymbals and the band starts to be manipulated by the breeze of the muse. 'China Doll' appears ever so briefly and then plays hide and go seek, as Garcia elicits a soft tone leaving 'Uncle John's' in the rear view window and heading for an unknown area of the map. The entire band except Garcia drops out and Jerry now starts to solo with a over driven tone through the waste land of mixolydian scales. Bending, stretching, working up to, and away from the 'note' Garcia peels away showers of notes until he works his way to the crashing opening chord of 'Wharf Rat'.
This 'Uncle John's-> 'Wharf Rat' is definitely the peak of this particular second set, and a nice glimpse into the development of the band's second set journeys coming later in the tour. 'Wharf Rat' features both Godchaux's playing their roles extremely well, Donna in great voice, and Keith adding the seasoning of some roly-poly honky tonk piano. The muscular conclusion of 'Wharf Rat' continues with Garcia's constant search up and down the neck of his guitar for the 'Answer' as in the previous solo segment. The drummers pound salt on their kits with rattling percussive statements, directing the band as when to swell and when to deflate. 'Wharf' builds to two nice peaks adorned with Weir harmonics, before falling into a bombastic and set closing 'Around and Around'. 'Around and Around leaves the crowd in a rock and roll tizzy as the band cruses into the double time jam with great aplomb. Everyone in the band plays their collection of rock and Chuck Berry riffs to the crowds great satisfaction. The group then returns for a heart wrenching and well played 1977 'Brokedown Palace' (before its eventual occurrence as a nightly encore). That finds us at the conclusion of the first show of the May 1977 box set, a typical 1977 performance in that the show is large, tempered, and contains numerous musical highlights. The energy is dispersed in a way that the entire show is developed as a story and not only contains well played singular songs, but also a concentrated improvised second set that is focused and direct.
Following the St. Paul show, the band traveled to Chicago for two performances at the historic Auditorium Theater where the band had spent many a quality nights. Starting on Thursday night the band continued the trend of the Spring 1977 tour in that every night had something to offer. The boys open with a funky and smooth sailing 'Bertha' that illustrates them as ready to go. Weir quotes the 'China Cat' riff during the verses for a unique twist on the tune. The solo segment of 'Bertha' is noticeable for the Garcia and Godchaux alchemy as they work together as one mind. The first set of the 12th feels slightly shorter that the 11th but again features a monster in the set closing position. After solid versions of 'Tennesse Jed', 'Jack Straw' and 'Minglewood', the boys close the set with a 'Mississippi Half Step->Dancin In the Street coupling. 'Half Step', similarly to many versions in 1977 floats down the rolling lazy river until reaching its destination where it expands into a climactic and inspiring ending. Garcia coaxes metallic cresting waves out of his Travis Bean while Billy and Mickey punctuate with crashing accents. Godchaux is again a master and uses his crazy fingers to echo, follow and expand on Garcia's leads. Just as 'Half Step' ends Weir signals 'Dancin In The Street' with his wispy funk riff reading, and the entire band jumps on board. The drummers are very active in this version, with both drummers hot on the tail of the other. Garcia's envelope filtered guitar wobbles psychedelically, quoting the 'Dancin' melody, and then shimmering through eight minutes of luscious jamming. The 'Dancin' which is the glistening jewel of the set and maybe the tour, is yet to come on the 15th, but we will talk about that in Part II! At about 5 minutes into the tune Garcia finds a loose thread and keeps pulling and pulling until it starts to unravel quickly. Billy and Mick hit double snare shots in the midst of their 'disco' beats and Lesh pops his heavy head from below the musical storm. Garcia gets a some more treble from his slurping guitar lines and holds onto some slippery notes that gets the band fired up. At nine minutes he switches back to a clean tone and he and Weir hit a helplessly peculiar groove riffing back and forth, prepping for the drop into the famous descending, syncopated riff added to the song in 1976. The band has a bit of trouble hitting it together, but eventually they all fall in line for a bit more riffing. Sliding into the acappela ending, the track fades to silence, where Bobby announces the upcoming set break. That concludes a nicely developed and energetic set closing similar to the previous night with the breathtaking 'Sugaree'.
The second set begins with the aforementioned trifecta of songs that matured during the Spring 77 tour but were also played almost nightly. 'Samson', 'Brown Eyed Women', and 'Estimated Prophet'. The set opening 'Samson' is hot to the touch, with the entire band creating what is maybe the best version on the set. 'Brown Eyed Women' and 'Estimated' are also top shelf versions, with the 'Estimated' featuring the first extended soling of the second set. Donna Godchaux's 'Sunrise' sneaks into the second set for a brief appearance and is well played but unremarkable to these ears.
The real heart of the second set comes with the opening strums of 'Terrapin Station', which opens the portal leading to the evening's eventual destination. This is a fresh and majestic 'Terrapin' that presents an attitude that would somehow be lost in later versions. The huge coda euphorically twists and turns until it falls straight into the lap of 'Playin In the Band'. After disposing of the verses the band drops into the expansive section of the song. 'Playin' quickly dissolves into into a Lesh/Garcia march with aggressive and eager accompaniment by the drummers. The jam moving a bit more quickly then other May versions of the song. Keith is noticeably absent during the exploration, and Weir starts to present ideas at around five and a half minutes. Lesh is quirky and shifty in his probing, with things getting very quiet and almost disoriented. This 'Playin' to me is about the search, because most of the twelve minutes is the band looking for the sacred spot, which as we will see is eventually found after drums. At around seven minutes things pick up and start to get interesting, with Billy making some unique percussive statements, and Garcia starting to mine melodic statements from the fertile ground. Just as I feel the jam is going to take off, Garcia drops out and the band leaves the stage to the drummers. A bit disappointing due to the possibilities that were starting to become unearthed in the jam, but as we shall find out Garcia and the band return to these ideas before the end of the show.
Drums take over for a deep rumbling tribal beating that immediately shows signs of the upcoming 'Not Fade Away'. This is how 'Not Fade Away's' used to roll, slow, heavy, thick, and long. Culminating with the enormous version on 9-3-1977, these mid 1970' NFA's' pack a punch that post 1980 no version can hold a candle to. Kudos to Weir's expert riffing and melodic ideas which keeps the 'Bo Diddley beat' squeezing out new ideas. Garcia uses his 'phased trumpet' tone for the first round of jamming that negotiates hairpin turns like an out of control semi truck. The group mind is in full effect for this as everyone starts to peak. At around six minutes the entire band in locked in, and Garcia'a playing becomes more loose, more improvised. Dizzying circular riffs bring the band to a boil, with Garcia then starting to play with a overdriven tone at around seven minutes that leaves fingerprints of a 'Mojo' jam on the glass. 'NFA' now starts to break through the earth and present itself as a hulking and towering mass of improvised funk. Lesh and Garcia bring it down at ten minutes with some playful and light bounces on the 'Not Fade Away' theme, and this is when things get a bit weird. Going back to the abandoned 'Playin' jam, the group starts to coalesce into a unique grey area, that becomes bright and then shaded, black and white, and then glorious technicolor. Garcia hits on a peculiar descending lick that the entire back jumps on and uses as the opulent gateway to the beautifully tender 'Comes A Time' that develops from the space. 'Comes A Time' is a song that can can make a set, or a performance with its deep Hunter lyrics and careful instrumentation. It's appearance in Spring 1977 sets is a welcome one, and it usually comes in the mist of a book-ended 'Playin' jam. The delicate and fluid guitar outro jam is carefully built back into the 'Playin' reprise by Garcia and Weir which gallops triumphantly across the finish and closes the show. The band returns to leave the crowd with some good ol' rock and roll with a kinetic Johnny B. Goode. So ends night one of two in Chicago, with some interesting things to follow!
The evening of the 13th is the last in Chicago with a day off following before the St. Louis performance on the 15th. The first set of this show was one of the first that I ever received as a blossoming 'Deadhead', and a favorite to this day. After some on stage announcements and tomfoolery the band breaks into a smoking 'Music Never Stopped' opener, while lacking a central jam, features a fiery closing guitar battle. The first set highlights are a large orchestrated 'Ramble On Rose', the premier of 'Jack A Roe' which glides across choppy water smoothly, and a set closing 'Scarlet->Fire'. The 'Scarlet' is excellent with Garcia scrubbing til he makes suds during the middle guitar break. The segue between the two tunes is different in that Phil is responsible for the transition with chunky and off kilter bass notes that develop into the signature 'Fire' riff. Garcia's guitar may be having issues as he is somewhat quiet for this unusually brief segue, but as soon as 'Fire' is reached he lets loose with a series of syrupy solos deconstructing the melody lines. This is an odd version for the month as far as the joining of the songs, but like previously stated, once 'Fire' is reached Garcia lets loose with series after series of jams. The drummers are right there with him with multiple cymbal rhythms, and rolling tom toms. A blazing and smoky 'Fire' to close the set and prep the crowd for what is to come.
The second set begins with the persuasive pairing of 'Samson and Delilah' and 'Bertha'. After a banging percussion filled 'Samson', Garcia starts the opening strums to 'Bertha'. While it takes a second to come together, once the verses begin 'Bertha' becomes a slick and groovy version decorated with great piano work and alternating percussion accents. Garcia and Godchaux embrace is a swirling ball room dance during the instrumental breaks. After a short pause the band starts up another 'Estimated Prophet', which does not stand alone, but this time drops into drums to begin the jam of the evening. Similar to early 'Playin's' these 'Estimated Prophet's' stay close to the central theme, and solo off of those changes. By June they would start to expand the song into other places and unknown universes, and this version starts to hint at that eventual growth. Lesh is popping like Bazooka bubblegum, locked in with Hart, shifting the floor underneath our feet. The jam floats around for a bit until it uneventfully trickles into drums. The drums is an energetic version full of 'Other One' rhythms that preface the upcoming journey.
The 'Other One' does not include a Lesh bomb to open the door, but Hart can be heard screaming a count off that introduces the song. This 'Other One' I believe is the longest of the tour, and contains more than a few highlights. I recommend checking all the 'Other Ones' from this tour as all of the versions have something special to offer. (5-25-77 is another personal fave) Garcia changes tones a few times early on in the jam and adds different spice to the churning tincture. At around three minutes the group gets into a breezy swinging 'Other One' themed jam, that has Phil tapping out quick neck runs that scurry underneath Garcia's probing lines. The drums lay back to give the music just enough movement like a flag being slightly lifted by a leafy wind. Around six minutes Garcia hits his spot and peels off multitudes of notes, hitting his mark the temperature of the band starts to rise slightly. This 'Other One' has a more positive edge than other versions, its shifty and swingy, lacking a scary edge, it lingers, and sometimes meanders only touching the 'Other One' but then rising out of view like a lost balloon looking for the sun. At around nine minutes the band drops out (Weir stays briefly) and Garcia is left on his own to investigate aural mysteries. A few shows from this tour develop into these Garcia solo excursions usually when Jerry has a lot to say (5-22-77 comes to mind) and are a unique opportunity to see Garcia take a spotlight in an era full of egotistical guitar players. After Jerry's solitary search the band crashes back into the main theme and Weir sings the only verse. Fully over drivin and full of fire and brimstone the band thrashes through the post verse jam, with Phil unusually quiet, but nonetheless active. Garcia steers the band toward 'Stella Blue' and they land gently at her doorstep. Unfortunately this version is somewhat marred by tempo issues between the drummers, Lesh, and Garcia. It shapes up to be a quality version with emotive vocals and a adequate closing jam, but it seems if Bill and Mick are having a hard time making up their mind of how to play this one!
As 'Stella' fades Garcia slips in the opening riff to 'Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad' and the band jumps all over this one with a reckless abandon. The three guitarist are in the front car of a out of control roller coaster, up, down, barley holding on, and full of excitement. Similar to 'Comes A Time' its a special thing when 'Goin Down the Road' pops up in a set, and its almost certain that it will be a rubber burning version, passing truck stops, and blowing through toll gates. Garcia sings this one like he means it, and Lesh comes alive, taking the wheel to negotiate any detours. Garcia's second solo just sings and cant help but put a smile on your face, gaining more momentum on every pass, until it explodes in celebration! Whoo hoo! An extreme group effort that adds up to a perfect and fitting show closer, until Weir slips in a 'One More Saturday Night' after the coda to really put the crowd over the top. Just when you think the band is spent they roll out one more time for a patriotic 'US Blues' closer. Perfect masters of moods, the band takes the crowd to the edge of space then back to earth again for three screaming rock and roll numbers.
Three very different and well played concerts make up the first look at the May 1977 box set. The shows I will feature in Part II of this review will be the 15th and 17th which conclude the box. As you, my dear reader can see already each night will have something special to offer the listener. The strength of the this tour is the group's ability to draw something significant out of normally placid songs or from areas they had never explored before. There is a patience, grace and quiet power to the collective performances. I hope this review inspires you to not only search out this set, but other shows on the tour that contain the same amazing playing and unique sets such as 4-23-77,4-27-77 5-5-77, 5-18-77. As always, thanks for reading, and I will see you for part II!