Friday, May 26, 2017

May of the Dead

It's the last Friday of the month, and time for an anniversary post celebrating one of the all-time classic tours.
Full disclosure: I can't stand 95% of the Grateful Dead's music. For me, the drummers played so far behind the beat that they may as well have been playing a show from the previous Tuesday. To my ears most of what they did sounds out-of-focus and like a band of noodling hippies turned loose upon an unsuspecting audience of extremely hazy high people. The old joke about what do Deadheads say when the drugs wear off (Gosh, this music sucks) rings too true.
There are a couple of eras of theirs, however, that I absolutely adore. One is the Spring and Summer of 1970, on tour with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. The other -- my total go-to Dead epoch -- is the six weeks of shows extending from the end of April to the beginning of June 40 years ago, commonly referred to as May 1977.
What is it? What theretofore and thereafter was different? What makes May 1977 the acknowledged pinnacle of GD goodness? I have my theories.
It really boils down to what a soloist needs to truly soar atop an ensemble. In the mid-1970s improv-rock firmament, groups with rock-solid rhythm sections were always ahead of the pack. The 1972-74 King Crimson, for instance, played on average a set where a good 40% was completely made up on the spot, but they had Bill Bruford and John Wetton anchoring the thing, driving the guitar and violin solos with an undeniable, near-terrifying momentum.
In the majority of GD material, this is a serious handicap, as the dual drummers drag the tempo constantly and rarely push Jerry Garcia to build a recognizable drive and arc to what he's attempting to construct. As Jimi Hendrix once famously said, "That's what happens when Earth fucks with Space."
The story goes that the record the Dead were making leading up to this tour --  the stellar and cohesive Terrapin Station, for many their finest recorded hour in terms of studio work -- forced the issue. Their first to be assisted by an outside producer, legend has it that the drummers were told to tighten up their act or leave the building, and they complied with the former.
Perhaps the return of a refreshed Mickey Hart to the fold had a bit to do with it as well, but the upshot was that the rhythmic motivation of the music got turned up a good few notches, and this carried over to these shows in May when the album was in the mixing stages.
Whatever it was, the performances given across those six weeks of (mostly) Eastern seaboard US dates stand out as the perfect pinnacle of what the Grateful Dead could be capable. Whereas most GD tours have one or two shows that tower above the rest, May 1977 features set after set of pure, unadulterated excellence, with Jerry positively playing his ass off over the top of what the drummers are laying down.
Thankfully the lion's share of these shows is available officially, now embellished with the release of the ultra-limited edition Get Shown the Light box set earlier this month that documents the run of shows from the first 10 days of May, including the Cornell University gig from 5/8 that many hold as the single greatest show ever played by this band.
To commemorate this most iconic of road-rock adventures, we have one of the seminal Dead shows from this time period that sadly remains unissued... by my count only the New York City Palladium shows from the first week of May, the Atlanta show from 5/18 and this Baltimore performance remain in the realm of the unreleased. This one is remastered by Jay Seraphin -- the notable audio-restoral boffin of distinction -- and fits right on in with the torrid playing and tight-as-they-ever-were vibes of the GD during this Spring '77 sojourn.
Grateful Dead
Civic Center
Baltimore, Maryland

01 The Music Never Stopped
02 Sugaree
03 Mama Tried
04 Sunrise
05 Deal
06 Passenger
07 Brown-Eyed Women
08 Looks Like Rain
09 Jack-A-Roe
10 New Minglewood Blues
01 Bertha
02 Samson & Delilah
03 High Time
04 Big River
05 Terrapin Station
06 Estimated Prophet
07 Eyes Of the World

01 Not Fade Away
02 Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad
03 Around & Around
04 Uncle John's Band

Total time: 2:51:50

Jerry Garcia - guitars & vocals
Bob Weir - guitars & vocals
Phil Lesh - bass & vocals
Bill Kreutzmann - drums
Mickey Hart - drums
Keith Godchaux - keyboards
Donna Jean Godchaux - vocals

master soundboard reels, remastered by Jay Serafin
So that will do it for May... I'll return in June with assorted tributes to the recently deceased, as well as more birthday and anniversary mayhem for your musical mind. For now, I'd advise pulling 5/26/1977 down and grooving gratefully to its charms, recorded 40 years ago tonight, as well as purchasing every show from the Spring '77 period you can get your hands on. Shake, Sugaree!--J.

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