I am not a Deadhead. It wouldn’t matter if I were a Deadhead, but I’m not a Deadhead. I’m more likely to follow Beach House around on tour than Phish. However, I do know most of the beloved Dead classics. Before I first heard this legendary concert over a decade ago, in bootleg form, I didn’t like those radio-friendly tunes. And, frankly, I still don’t like them.
After hearing the band’s famed May 8, 1977 concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall numerous times over the years (and in numerous bootlegs) I, likewise, was not inspired to persevere in becoming familiar with the canon – let alone the wide range – of other infamous Dead bootlegs. Sure, I’ve heard and liked this or that recording of “Dark Star” from the late ’60s or early ’70s, but I’m no expert. I’ve always just returned, very happily, to just this show. When it comes to the Dead, it’s all I’ve needed.
Legendary as the show is, Cornell 5/8/77 is the first official, stand-alone commercial release of the concert; And it sounds better than ever before. The release has kicked off another one of my limited but intense obsessions with the band’s inimitable sound. And that obsession may, for the first time, inspire me to have to finally dig seriously beyond it. But! – If you want just one thing by the Dead that could conceivably initiate you into their authentic concert-based appeal while also potentially satisfying your curiosity for life… this may be it.
I won’t ignore that this is, admittedly, a 3-disc set. If you get the CD version, start with the second of the three discs. And if you want to make an even quicker beeline to the secrets of the goodness, start with arguably the greatest twofer in Dead history: “Scarlet Begonias” and its glorious transition into “Fire on the Mountain.” Taken together, this jam constitutes perhaps the high point of long, patience-rewarding ’70s guitar rock, holding its own next to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” or “Stairway to Heaven” in its enduring quality.
These two tracks alone can satisfy your attentive ears for weeks on end, as you internalize the groove, the subtleties, and learn to anticipate key climactic moments which retroactively make the build up seem all the more interesting, all the more masterful. The Dead are, of course, often accused of doodling. The “Scarlet > Fire” of this set, though, shows just how deeply considered, authentically symphonic, and artfully layered their playing could be at its peak.
Once you’ve got “Scarlet > Fire” down, expand outwards to the rest of the second disc which is almost certainly the peak. As a matter of fact, the twisting, sideways guitar solo style on “Dancing in the Streets” rivals “Scarlet > Fire” in terms of sustaining concentrated interest and may well be the most magnificent, idiosyncratic solo performance on the set (compared to the group euphony of “S>F”). “Estimated Prophet” is also estimable in its unification of rooted, earthy rhythm and freed, celestial melody.
As for the first and last discs, let’s just say everyone has their own idea about what the highlights are. Pretty much everyone agrees on “Morning Dew.” After that, it’s all good, but favorites are up for grabs: as a long jam, do you prefer “Row Jimmy” or “Not Fade Away”? For something a bit more concentrated, do you prefer “Loser” or do you favor “They Love Each Other”? Even the most honest Deadheads will admit that the group are an acquired taste, but there are of course complex acquired tastes within acquired tastes within Deadhead-dom.
What I don’t think is up for contention, though, is whether Cornell 5/8/77 is a suitable introduction to the serious inquirer into the soul of this legendary band, on the terms of those who most love them. In my view, it certainly still is. And with a new release featuring a glistening remaster, beautifully evocative artwork, and an essay by Nicholas Meriwether, this may well be the best time to jump on in.