Letting the Music Play the Band: Four Days in May with the Grateful Dead
by John Patrick Gatta on May 08, 2017
Photo credit ©Jon Reis 5-8-77
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s celebrated performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. To mark the occasion we share this conversation with band archivist David Lemieux in which he reflects on the music that the band was producing in early May, which is presented on MAY 1977: GET SHOWN THE LIGHT. This box set collects that performance evening along with three other celebrated concerts: Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, New Haven, CT (5/5/77), Boston Garden, Boston, MA (5/7/77), and Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, NY (5/9/77). While the limited edition box is now sold out, the “All Music Edition” is currently available. Rhino will release CORNELL 5/8/77 as a three-CD set, a five-LP set and also via digital download and streaming.
Over on Jambands.com Lemieux discusses how the tapes found their way to the vault, building on Dean Budnick’s “What's Become of the Bettys?" piece, which ran in our 40th anniversary issue.
In looking back on May 1977 do you think there was a strong sense of discipline in the band because it was after recording Terrapin Station? Have you given any thoughts as to why it all worked so well at this moment in time?
I haven’t put much thought into it until quite recently when it really did occur that it was exactly like you said, the discipline of the Terrapin Station sessions…the way the drummers are playing. I’m not going to say they’re in sync with each other. They’re not. They’re certainly two drummers but they’re playing completely complementary with one another. They took a lot from that. You listen to this two drummer arrangement versus the 1969 two drummer arrangement and there’s definitely something different going on.
The new songs, which were the big ones, “Estimated Prophet” and “Terrapin Station” and “Dancin’ in the Street” from ‘76, the new arrangement of it, I just feel that “Terrapin” and “Estimated” really brought a new element of depth to the repertoire. It’s interesting because the Buffalo show is the first time the Dead ever segued out of “Estimated Prophet.” Up until then, “Estimated Prophet” was always a standalone song. It always ended. I remember friends of mine, “Oh yeah, Boston has the first “Estimated”>”Eyes of the World,” which is not true. It’s “Estimated,” which comes to a stop and then there’s a tuning break and then they go into “Eyes.” So, that is not really an “Estimated”> “Eyes.” The Buffalo show does feature the “Estimated”> “Other One.” That’s the first time “Estimated” ever just kept going. It just led the Dead a new platform of the jumping off point just as “Terrapin Station” did.
A whole lot of really, really great music happening and fresh music, like you say, the discipline of the Terrapin Station sessions, and getting whipped into shape by a proper L.A. bonafide studio producer (Keith Olsen). His pedigree certainly with nine big hit records that sounded amazing. And that’s what he got out of “Terrapin Station.” So, I don’t know what was going on. Was it six months of touring after the comeback of June of ‘76 where they it all locked together by early ‘77 or was it the Terrapin stuff? I don’t know but it sure does sound good.
The version of “Peggy-O” in New Haven is much different than the version in Boston Garden. Same thing with “Tennessee Jed.” There’s a different swing to it and a different approach.
It is, and it’s funny because a song like “Peggy–O” for the most part is similar but on this tour, “Peggy-O,” it’s a great example, it’s completely different. I think there’s three in this box. The one in New Haven is widely considered the best version ever, but then, to come back the next night, the next show in Boston, and do an equally awesome version…it’s just typical of the way they were playing. Then, you think of the kind of typical first set songs of the era -- “Brown-Eyed Women” at Cornell and “Loser” at Cornell, “Cassidy” in Buffalo, “Peggy-O” in New Haven -- there’s something magical going on, where there was not only not a throwaway song, there wasn’t even a throwaway verse or solo. Everything was done with a purpose.
When we did the first May box set from the next five shows, May 11 to May 17, I remember people saying, “Wow. How do these shows compare to the previous four, the New Haven to Buffalo?” Frankly, they don’t and I love that first May box. But there’s really something special about these five shows that’s unmatched. There’s something special going on and I am just extremely grateful and extremely happy that they came home and were able to get to the world in this quality. I’ve now been proofing them for months. Jeffrey started really working on them in November/December and it’s kind of been a relentless listening experience for me and, oh man, as somebody who knew these shows intimately as we all did from our tape trading days, they sound way better than we ever thought they could. So, exciting times ahead.
One more thing about New Haven. The couple comments that Bobby made at the beginning of the show, “We’re all assembled asking that age old question, ‘Why doesn’t it ever work?” And then, “Funny thing happened on the way to the show tonight. The airplane went the wrong way.” Do you have any idea if strange things happened before that show or was it just him just being a goof that night?
Probably just Bob being a goof. I’m sure they did have their technical difficulties onstage. They just came off a week-long run at the Palladium in New York. They really settled themselves into New York for almost two weeks because they played Passaic, New Jersey right before the New York City shows. And they stayed at the same hotel…I’ve seen the itinerary. Stayed at the same hotel in New York for the Passaic shows [at the Capitol Theater] and the Academy of Music venue, same venue as the Palladium.
So, New Haven was really the beginning of the tour. From there they really started touring. It is interesting because they started the tour with Philadelphia and Springfield, Massachusetts. Then, they did the three nights in Passaic, and then the five with a night off in New York City. New Haven and the Boston show really is where the tour officially started in terms of touring activity.
It’s also interesting that New Haven for whatever reason is just a bit shorter than the others. Makes it on two discs rather than three as the others do.
It is. A friend of mine is a very well-known, highly regarded Deadhead with a great ear. He’s always considered New Haven to be the one of the four shows, and this is not to disparage the other three at all. They deserve their place of honor, certainly. But for him, for his ear, there’s something about New Haven. Where it lacks, maybe, the “Morning Dew” or the second set jam from “The Wheel” from Boston or the “Comes a Time” and the “Estimated”> “Other One” and “Not Fade Away” from Buffalo, there’s something about New Haven. Maybe it’s because they’re officially on the road at that point. And it’s a jam coming out of “St. Stephen” and the “Scarlet”> “Fire,” while maybe not hitting the heights of Cornell, is certainly well-played.
That first set, oh man. Like you said, as a spot check, you listen to “Promise Land” and “Sugaree” and those two just jumped out of your speakers. That’s what to me New Haven is all about. It’s shockingly good for the show that is reputedly under the radar compared to the other three and that’s why we made it a point to include that show in this box set because that’s really a part of this four night week of excellence.
In the video you talked about how even if there was a flub or a miscue that it was still turned into gold. I’m thinking particularly during the opening number in Boston, the first run through of the chorus of “Bertha.” I don’t know what happened but they just started laughing and go, “Wooooo.”
It’s a big feedback laugh. I guess it’s onstage as a big feedback laugh. I remember that from my days of tape trading and when I first got it, I thought, “Wow, they’re having fun onstage.” Not that I ever thought that the Dead weren’t having fun but that was when you really realized, “My goodness. They’re really having a good time.”
There are, I’m not going to say plenty of flubs throughout this box set. There are a couple but they’re so inconsequential and like you quoted me saying, “They spin it into gold.” It happens. Donna comes in a little early on “St. Stephen” in Cornell and something similar happens in New Haven on “St. Stephen.” They’re other little moments like this throughout that are just so minor, it’s interesting. There are so few of them that you can actually on one hand count the miscues in this box set, which is unbelievable. They’re so inconsequential, it’s pretty amazing. This is a band that’s playing live, playing to their lives, letting the music play the band.