Is This the Best Grateful Dead Concert Ever?

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Grateful Dead Cornell 77The Grateful Dead’s May 8, 1977 gig at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York—which included two sets, ran close to three hours, and is finally being released on three discs—quickly came to be regarded as the best show of the group’s 1977 tour. Four decades later, some fans and critics are showering it with even greater praise, citing it as the Dead’s finest concert ever. A tape of the performance has been added to a roster of historic recordings at the Library of Congress and you can even buy a book called Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Majesty of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall. (The book is available on its own and in an expanded 11-disc box set that couples the May 8 show with ones from May 5, 7, and 9.)

Though the Barton Hall performance has long been revered by tape-trading Deadheads, I hadn’t heard it until recently, and I approached it with some skepticism. For one thing, I thought, if it’s so good, why hasn’t this remastered soundboard recording been released until now?

I don’t know the answer to that question. And I do think it’s a little silly to call this the Dead’s best gig ever. After all, they performed 2,318 concerts during their career—more than any other band in history, according to Time magazine. I doubt anyone has even heard all those shows, with the possible exception of the four founding members of the group who stayed with them to the end. Even they may have missed a night here or there.

Garcia’s fluid, inventive lead guitar work is the No. 1 attraction here but the entire band is remarkable and in perfect sync.

As for me, I’ve seen the band live once and heard all or part of several dozen other concerts on record. So I’m in no position to judge whether this is the best Dead show of all time.

That said, I’d be surprised if this concert—for which ticket prices topped out at $7.50, incidentally—didn’t prove to be at least one of the best. At the time of the show, the band consisted of founding members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh, plus Mickey Hart, who missed only a few years of the Dead’s 30-year run, and Keith and Donna Godchaux, who joined in 1971 and stayed till 1979. Garcia’s fluid, inventive lead guitar work is the No. 1 attraction here but the entire band is remarkable and in perfect sync.

So is the 20-track program on Cornell: 5/8/77, which feels cohesive and tightly knit, despite the fact that the music comes from disparate sources. The set includes six covers, all songs that frequently found their way into Dead concerts and that showed their ability to reinvent familiar material. Among them are two country standards, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Marty Robbins’s “El Paso”; one number that began life in the folk world, Tim Rose and Bonnie Dobson’s “(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew”; one rock chestnut, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (by Norman Petty and Charles Hardin); “Dancing in the Street,” the Marvin Gaye-coauthored Motown hit for Martha and the Vandellas; and “New Minglewood Blues,” the Dead’s completely reworked version of a song that dates from 1928. The other 14 tracks are originals, most with lyrics by Robert Hunter or John Perry Barlow. Among them are concert staples like “St. Stephen,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and “One More Saturday Night,” as well as such lesser-known numbers as “They Love Each Other” and Wake of the Flood’s “Row Jimmy.”

Throughout this remastered recording, the Dead sound like a band at the top of their game. Listening to these percussive, exuberantly sung numbers is a joy. Hearing Garcia’s otherworldly guitar work is a thrill. After nearly three hours, I still wanted more.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Positively BobWillie Nile, Positively Bob. You don’t need the singer’s heartfelt liner notes to detect his great and longtime affection for Bob Dylan’s music. It’s evident in each of the 10 tracks on this collection from Willie Nile, who applies his great rock and roll sensibility and voice to a program of mostly 1960s-era classics. (The only tracks that didn’t originate in that decade are “Every Grain of Sand,” from 1981’s Shot of Love, and 1975’s “Abandoned Love,” which was a highlight of 1985’s Biograph.) Backed by a top-notch band, Nile delivers a hard-rocking “The Times They Are a-Changin’”; a reading of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that sounds closer to the Ramones than to the famous Peter, Paul, and Mary cover; and a version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that captures the exuberance of the lyric. Also here: Blonde on Blonde’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “I Want You,” plus strong renditions of such earlier gems as “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Jimmy LaFave remains my all-time favorite Dylan interpreter, but these impassioned performances elevate Willie Nile to a close number two.

Treasure of the Broken LandVarious Artists, Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard. This isn’t exactly an all-star tribute: the only artists I’m more than slightly familiar with on the program are Rodney Crowell and Buddy Miller. Then again, I’ve never previously heard of the singer/songwriter they’re all celebrating: Mark Heard, a Georgia-born singer/songwriter and producer who died in 1992 at age 40, a couple of weeks after suffering a heart attack on stage. His obscurity notwithstanding, he worked with quite a few well-known artists, released 16 albums, and has been the subject of two previous tribute albums (both now out of print). Play the frequently gospel-tinged folk/rock songs on this 18-track CD and you’ll understand why his music has attracted devotees, if not the large fan base it deserves. It is solidly constructed and memorable, and its lyrics address elemental issues like love and the passage of time in a distinctive voice. Multi-artist albums are inevitably uneven, but this one’s a whole lot less uneven than most. After listening to it, I not only want to seek out more from Heard; I also want to investigate the catalogs of most of the artists who pay homage to him here.

Platt & HoneycuttersAmanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters, Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters. Platt sings like she means it on this country-tinged folk album, and whether or not her nuanced lyrics are drawn directly from real life, they sure sound as if they are. Typical of her style is the affecting “Birthday Song,” the lead track, which begins, “I just got word today that the money’s gonna be OK, and the weather oughta hold out through the weekend / Fall is setting in, the days are getting short again, and the morning’s getting real nice for sleeping.” Adds Platt: “Every time it gets colder I get another year older … but when I lay down at night / I swear I must have done something right / ’Cause I’m still so damn glad to be here.” Platt’s vocals convey joy and tenderness and her band provide amiable backup. At its best, this music is on a par with Lucinda Williams’s, which is saying a lot.

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