The Grateful Dead’s “Holy Grail”: Does It Hold Up?

 

What elements are required to make a show the “greatest of all time”?  Is it the location, the quality of music, the performance, or a combination of all of these elements?  With the Grateful Dead’s official release of their long held “Holy Grail” show, which took place in Barton Hall, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York on May 8, 1977, listeners get the chance to find out.

As any more-than-casual fan of the Grateful Dead knows, it’s not long after one’s introduction to the band’s huge catalog of live recordings that whispers (or in some cases, shouts) of a singular date, May 8, 1977, begin to appear.  I can personally remember sitting on the lawn at SPAC, my local summer amphitheater in New York, waiting for a Phish show to begin, and hearing a remark made behind me by a former Deadhead, arguing with his companion, “No, man, no way you can beat May 8th, man.”

So it was with some excitement that I sat down to hear the Grateful Dead’s first official release of this famous show, promising crystal-clear audio for a show that has only ever been heard through audience recordings and soundboard patches.  Regarding audio quality, like so many shows from 1977, the sound is very strong and well mixed, with all band members being able to be discerned.  Phil’s bass is very strong (always a concern), just check out “Dancin’ in the Streets” with your subwoofer to see what I mean.

However, it’s not the audio quality alone that makes the great show. For those who have never listened to the Grateful Dead, this is perhaps the perfect show to start with.  Set One comes out the door with the classic late-1970s Dead sound, leading off with some Bob Weir-sung swagger on “New Minglewood Blues”. By “Lazy Lightning>Supplication” though, the Dead are beginning to reveal their true form, as the song begins to shed its verse-chorus structure and depart into musical freedom, lead by Jerry Garcia’s somewhat restrained lead guitar. Later in the set, the band moves through a solid version of its folk-y classic “Brown-Eyed Women” and sees Jerry Garcia lay down a strong “Row Jimmy”.  It is the closing song of Set One that stands out, though. The aforementioned “Dancin’ in the Streets” certainly dates this concert, but it is still a nearly 20 minute trip through a psychedelic disco, with the band tight as ever, each floating around the central groove before rejoining to end the song. 

It is in Set Two, however, where the magic of the Grateful Dead really shines.  If Set One represents some level of musical restraint, then it can be said that the opening notes of “Scarlet Begonias” represent a point of no return into total musical freedom.

Paired with its longtime song partner, “Fire on the Mountain”, this monster 25 minute “Scarlet Fire” cements its place as one of its most popular examples, with a focused mid-point transition, and Jerry Garcia’s guitar soaring above the huge wave of sound provided by his bandmates during the last half of “Fire on the Mountain”.  The following “Estimated Prophet”, a personal favorite, is the darkness to the light that precedes it, with Bob Weir describing a seemingly apocalyptic vision of delusion with a backdrop of a romanticized version of America before allowing the music to leave into a snaking cosmic exploration.  The band comes back to Earth with a strong version of the classic favorite, “St. Stephen” sandwiching a sprawling “Not Fade Away”.

What comes next, though, is for me, the high water mark of perhaps all of the Grateful Dead that I have heard, truly.  Attendees of the concert have since described feeling a wave of energy radiate from the crowd as they heard the opening notes of this “Morning Dew”, a relative rarity.  Beginning as a low-energy, somber tune, “Morning Dew” rises in energy as it progresses to its emotional peak, where instrumental music says all and more than lyrics possibly could have.  Closing with the utterance, “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway…”, Jerry Garcia speaks to the existentialist that lives within all, urging listeners to live in the present, as the past is gone and the future is coming.

So is this truly the “greatest Dead show of all time”?  For me, this question can not be answered, as the musical power that the Grateful Dead convey can not be simplified to any moment, song, or concert.  What this concert is, though, is a measuring stick.  This concert brings unparalleled consistency, power, tightness, exploration, and emotion together to deliver the trademark Dead experience.  So, if you can only listen to one Dead show, make it this one.

This concert can be heard on the Grateful Dead’s newly released “Cornell 5/8/77” set, either as a 3-CD or 5-LP set, or, of course, on digital streaming and download services.

http://www.syracuse.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2017/05/legend_of_1977_grateful_dead_show_at_cornell_lives_on_at_40th_anniversary.html

http://www.spin.com/2017/05/grateful-dead-day-cornell-show-40th-anniversary/

http://www.stereogum.com/1939833/why-even-non-heads-should-listen-to-grateful-deads-famous-cornell-show-from-40-years-ago-today/franchises/sounding-board/

 

 

On the Radar – Glass Animals

“Twee vole go dig your hole/Squish squirmies in your nose/Tree hairs in your eyes/You smile so super quiet.” I have heard some strange lyrics before, but none as poetically odd as the ones featured in the song “Wyrd” by Glass Animals. Dave Bayley, the lead singer, is a genius when writing intriguing lyrics that’ll make your ears tickle with delight. Of course, the music itself is enough to do that.

Glass Animals are an English indie rock band that have entranced many due to their hip-hop inspired beats and trippy tunes. It all started in St. Edwards School in Oxford when Bayley would occasionally spend his free time writing songs and lyrics. It wasn’t until after college that he was able to convince his friends to start a band with him. Despite never being in a band before, Drew MacFarlane, Edmund Irwin-Singer, and Joe Seaward joined him by playing guitar, bass, and drums respectively. In 2012, they released their first EP Leaflings which caught the attention of producer Paul Epworth (Foster the People, Bloc Party, Crystal Castles, etc.). From there, they proceeded to work on their first album.

Their debut album Zaba was met with great reviews by critics, and it was well worth the praise too. Zaba happens to be one of my favorite albums because of the curiously phrased lyrics and minimalistic, psychedelic instrumental compositions. Zaba is exotic with a very jungle infused theme rhythmically all the while being a bit seductive with its soft, somewhat electronic ballads. The creatively made ambient sounds throughout the album are enough to make you want to really listen to what’s actually happening. It’s rare to find an album where all the songs are likable and mesh together so well, and yet Zaba does this almost effortlessly. “Gooey”, one of the band’s more popular songs, is deeply R&B inspired with some weird verses such as “Right my little pooh bear, wanna take a chance?/Wanna sip the smooth air, kick it in the sand?/I’ll say I told you so but you just gonna cry/You just wanna know those peanut butter vibes.” “Hazey” is a soothingly simple song filled with pops and snaps that make it hard not to dance to.

How To Be a Human Being, the band’s second album, was released earlier this year being the complete opposite of what Zaba was. It wasn’t shrouded in mystery or a dreamy atmosphere. On the contrary, their lyrics were more straight-forward, the tone was happier, and it felt like more of a groovy indie pop album. They decided to take a different approach and make a concept album where each song is a story about a different character. “Life Itself” for example takes the listener through a peculiar man’s life and the downward spiral it takes because he refuses to live in reality. “Youth” is a bittersweet melody about a parent giving up their child in hopes that they will live a better life. “Mama’s Gun” is a particular favorite from the album because of the sweet flute samples from The Carpenters and Bayley’s delicate vocals contrasting with the morbid subject matter of a woman with a mental illness, probably schizophrenia, murdering her husband.

Glass Animals are slightly weird and mesmerizing. They have the ability to awaken your senses by painting a vivid picture with their songs. The amount of detail they put into their music is so amazing that it deserves to be listened to on a nice pair of headphones or a speaker to really appreciate it. If you are ever in the mood for calm yet whimsical music, I say Glass Animals is a must.

Warpaint – Heads Up

With many great women in rock and roll, it’s no surprise that Warpaint has gained attention for their dream pop aesthetic and wispy vocals. The Los Angeles quartet formed on Valentine’s Day in 2004. The bandmates have a long history with each other as lead woman Emily Kokal and guitarist Theresa Wayman have been friends since childhood. They were later joined by sisters Jenny Lee Lindberg and Shannyn Sossamon, though Sossamon would leave soon and be replaced by Stella Mozgawa, and would write and perform songs that would later comprise their first EP.

In 2007, Warpaint debuted their EP Exquisite Corpse which rose up to the Number 1 spot on the Los Angeles Amoeba Records local artist chart. Critics praised the album and were curious to hear what else the band had in store. The band listened and released The Fool three years after their EP came out. Once again the critics gave their album fantastic reviews. Word of Warpaint started circulating and they captured the hearts of many fans with their harmonious choruses and Lindberg’s artistically melancholy bass lines. Following suite, their second album Warpaint garnered rave reviews. Now, two years after their phenomenal self-titled album, they have delivered their wonderfully dynamic third album Heads Up.

The band excited many fans with the news that they were making a new album. The first single released is ironically titled “New Song”. It describes the joys of a new relationship when the person of interest is constantly in your head. While it is not the most lyrically intricate song, it is catchy enough to remain in your head for a couple of hours. This song has many characteristics of a “mainstream song” with its repetitive lyrics and poppy beats. It is a strange venture from the band’s previous songs that entranced people with their psychedelic nature.

“Whiteout” is the opening track and second single of the album. Kokal really delivers with intense, passionate vocals. The amount of layers Warpaint manages to put on every song absolutely blows me away. For this track, every instrument playing blends so magnificently together bringing about a song that is a mixture of indie pop with hints of R&B.

Heads Up is a great listen when you want to relax. It’s a calming album filled with the mystic idiosyncrasies that the listener has come to expect of Warpaint. However, they have seemed to have expanded their sound with faster paced songs and rhythms. In a way, this album reminds me a bit of music from the 90s with reverberating guitar notes and hypnotic melodies. This album steps away from the dark mood Warpaint usually has, but never strays too far from what has made the band a cult favorite.