1977 was a banner year in the history of the Grateful Dead. As Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke wrote in his ranking of the 20 best Dead concerts, “For sublime singing, instrumental union and sequencing bravado, there may be no greater sustained run of shows, certainly in the Keith-and-Donna years, than the Dead’s spring ’77 tour.”
Deadheads have long flocked to bootlegs from the year of Terrapin Station, but one fan in particular took his love of this era’s Dead concerts to a startling, fascinating extreme: Behold, 90 minutes of the Grateful Dead just tuning up and bantering between themselves from the 1977 trek.
Dead fan Michael David Murphy embarked on this jam noise collage, targeting 1977 – “Some would say it was their best year,” Murphy says – and then rummaging through Archive.org’s immense Dead catalog for every loose publicly accessible scrap of sound. The result is “Tuning ’77.”
“I started thinking, ‘What would it sound like to string together an entire year of the band just tuning up? What does it sound like when they’re not playing anything?,'” Murphy told Good Day Sacramento (via the A.V. Club). “It’s them talking as a band, actually tuning up, playing little teases of songs, often their equipment is breaking and they’re running around fixing things… there are some interesting things that pop up in the audio in the hour and a half.”
The result is a cacophony of sounds: One moment, a guitar is being tuned, the next Mickey Hart is beating the skins, then a voice tells the crowd the band is dealing with technical difficulties. Each time it feels like a “Sugaree” or “Jack Straw” is about to emerge, “Tuning ’77” immediately cuts to, well, tuning. Murphy admits that most people don’t make it far into his aural montage.
“It’s a conceptual art piece. It’s an audio piece that is really about the idea of what does sound sound like when no music is happening,” Murphy said. “It will frustrate listeners, and other listeners find it really amusing and fun.”