May 1977

The Grateful Dead's May 8th, 1977, gig at Cornell University is widely considered the ne plus ultra of Dead bootlegs. This 14-disc set, packed in a psychedelic sarcophagus, documents five gigs from later that month. It puts the consensus-maker in perspective, occasionally rivals it and, flaws notwithstanding, shows a band on a hell of a hot streak. Compared to the hard-tripping Sixties edition, this is comfort-food Dead, long on unhurried jams and raggedy country harmonies sweetened by their only-ever female band member, Donna Jean Godchaux.

The improvisation shines on wah-wah-powered twofers that became concert staples: "Estimated Prophet"/"Eyes of the World" (making their paired debut on May 15th in St. Louis) and "Scarlet Begonias"/"Fire on the Mountain," which stretched to 25 minutes on May 17th in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with a segue epitomizing the band's sleight-of-hand groove magic. A tempo-shifted "St. Stephen" gets flubbed, omitting a verse and its howling off-ramp jam. Other revisions – Jerry Garcia's guitar effects on "Uncle John's Band," the boy-girl harmonies on "High Time" – are more winning. And minor tracks often surprise: See "Sugaree," from May 11th in St. Paul, Minnesota, in which Garcia explodes around the six-minute mark into a torrent of guitar bliss, then slips back into a molasses verse like he'd just been picking his teeth. As the bearish Zen master sang later that night, "Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right."

From The Archives Issue 1186: July 4, 2013