Ranks as among the band’s best shows with Grateful Dead fans.
This May 8, 1977 date from Cornell University ranks as among the band’s best shows with Grateful Dead fans. With years and years of touring, squillions of notes and countless renditions of classic songs, parsing the good, the bad and the mediocre could comprise one’s life work. Whether pronouncement of this Ithaca gig is empirical or merely anecdotal hardly matters, it’s evidence of the band delivering the goods in what was a pretty good year for the venerable San Francisco act. The critically-derided Terrapin Station was nearly three months away from release and the rough, clunky shows during 1978 were hardly imaginable. This set shows that the unit was performing as good if not better than any point since its legendary ’72 trek through Europe.
That run was documented on the classic (if somewhat predictably titled) Europe ‘72 release. That record is notable for its inclusion of songs not released on previous studio efforts as well as an excellent sampling of the Dead’s folk and blues roots. There’s a casualness, an ease from that collection that comes to mind here. Keith and Donna Godchaux, easy targets for some critics and fans alike, often had problems blending in. Her pitch could be suspect, even in a group not necessarily known for its expert vocal talents. Some would later claim that Keith’s tendency to mimic Jerry Garcia’s guitar runs a little too closely was one of the more annoying tendencies from the era, but here his touch is nothing less than perfect. Listening to this set, it’s hard to imagine that the mercurial husband and wife team had less than two years left on the gig. They’re subtle, spot on and fully integrated within the larger body.
Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” finds Bob Weir singing with a clear-eyed passion not heard in more widely circulated renditions. There and on Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Garcia sounds especially spirited, showing off his country and folk roots with eyebrow raising licks as he provides perfect emotional support to his former student’s vocal performance. A nearly 17-minute stroll through “Dancing in the Street” summons some decidedly passionate playing from bassist Phil Lesh, and finds Donna Godchaux acquitting herself nicely during a rendition that blends soul, disco and the Dead’s ability to harness the disparate streams that flowed into rock music.
There are also many reminders that when Garcia and friends were focused and playing as an ensemble, listening to each other and set on the same goal, the music could be transcendental. “Brown-Eyed Women,” a sometimes overlooked entry in the oeuvre, is delivered here with a sophistication and earnestness suggesting that the Dead was rivaled only by The Band in its ability to move beyond the boundaries of rock, country and whatever else existed and deliver something uniquely American during the decade of Nixon, Carter and Ford. The San Francisco outfit rarely if ever followed trends, but there’s a spirit here that calls to mind what Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm et al. were capable of. You can hear it in the aforementioned “Brown-Eyed Women” and the ballad “Jack Straw.” The latter stands as a love-it-or-hate-it composition, and one’s opinion often wavers on the individual performance. It remains one of the few unremarkable entries on Europe ‘72, and that it was left off 1981’s Dead Set until the record’s 2004 reissue speaks volumes about the rendition heard there. On this night in Ithaca, though, the song positively sings, the Steinbeck-inspired lyrics and Weir’s delicate vocals provide an emotional resonance the piece often otherwise lacks. The highest compliment one can pay it is that, at least here, it sounds like a song that could have been found on either Music from Big Pink or The Band’s 1969 self-titled effort.
Though that ensemble sensibility ultimately prevails, there are still moments of individual brilliance. Garcia delivers some of the most emotionally charged playing he summoned during 1978 on the dark and downtrodden “Loser” and the swift, certain and nearly definitive “Deal” plus the eternally moving “Row Jimmy.”
As good as the individual experience of all those songs is, the structure of the evening itself gives us an emotional arc that not all Dead shows could provide. Especially during the late 1980s and into the following years, a haphazardness allowed the cracks and valleys to show more plainly. Though the structure here isn’t as binary as short songs at the top and longer journeys toward the back, it helps that we’re eased into it with a disc that qualifies as the hits and then two more that provide the trippy, exotic explorations we crave from the Dead. Those journeys are often as notable for their blunders as their successes, but in that regard the band rises to the occasion once more, delivering a sprawling “Fire on the Mountain” and “Morning Dew” that feel like continuous revelations.
This show has been collected with three others in a box set called Get Shown the Light, with shows from May 5 in New Haven, May 7 in Boston and May 9 in Buffalo. For the hardcore, it’s well worth the dive and further evidence that early 1977 may have the Grateful Dead’s absolute peak. As for the reputation of the Ithaca gig being among the best ever? Well, one would be wise to withhold that proclamation because the best Dead show may ultimately be the one you are listening to at this very moment.