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.