On May 8, 1977, the Grateful Dead played probably its best show ever at Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York.
Built in 1914-15 as a drill hall for the Department of Military Science, Barton Hall was, and still is, a campus fixture. It was used primarily as a field house, but by the 1970s it was also used a concert venue.
For this particular Sunday night concert in 1977, student tickets were $6.50.
Public tickets were a dollar more, $7.50.
So I said that this is probably the best Dead show. “Probably” is waffle-y, but with good reason. Picking just one from more than 2,300 shows is a highly subjective endeavor. What makes a show the best? Performance? Song selection? Era? Sound quality? Some combination of those factors? Sure, but how you weigh those factors depends on a lot of personal preferences. Some folks dig Pigpen rants. Some folks dig Brent Myland keyboards. Other folks dig other stuff.
I’m a Touchhead, a GD fan who discovered the band when they had a Top 40 hit – 1987’s Touch of Grey. My first show was 4/13/88. Since then, even before then, I have listened to plenty. I’ve listened to a lot more than I attended, tbh, but I’ve listened intently. So I feel like I have a modicum of credibility to wax a bit about what will always be my favorite band.
There are a handful of shows that most Deadheads would consider among the best. When the GDC gang, of which I’m fortunate to be a member, made a list of the Top 100 shows on the Live Music Archive, we decided to leave out the usual suspects – all of the official releases at that time, but also well-knowns/well-loveds like 2/18/71, 4/29/71, 8/27/72, 6/10/73, and, of course, 5/8/77. Our journey was planned for un- or under-explored places on the Dead map, so we avoided places that we had visited enough times that their setlists were as familiar as hometown streets.
OM has made the case for Cornell, and I don’t have much to add to his argument. I would only echo his point that the best shows are the best for many reasons, but one of those (maybe the most important of those) is the amazing culture of tape-trading that surrounded the Dead for most of its 40 years.
During the primal/psychadelic ballroom era in the late-60s, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the band’s first sound engineer, began recording shows from his mixing or sound board. After the October 1974 farewell shows, Bear passed the torch to Dan Healy, who helped establish a “tapers section,” where audience members could make their own recordings. (Sometimes, he gave tapers access to the soundboard, which resulted in recordings with much better sound quality than those produced from ambient microphones directed at the stage.)
Eventually, copies of both soundboard and audience recordings passed from head to head – older heads, who had been at some of the great nights in Dead history, as well as younger heads like me, who wanted a connection to those nights. A audience recording of 5/8/77 by famed taper Jerry Moore reached GD vault guy Dick Latvala a few weeks later. His notes from initial listens were ebullient, and helped establish that show as one to hear:
Dick said, “over-all, I haven’t heard a finer show.” Rick Koh, who was there and who’s on a regular GD email chain with a bunch of us, once quipped, “How could it be the best show ever if they didn’t play Dark Star?” Yeah, it’s pretty subjective. To lend some objectivity to task of gauging 5/8/77’s quality, let’s talk about the best-show factors that I mentioned above.
(Photo: Lawrence Reichman)
Performance-wise, the band is the loose-but-tight that characterized much of its work in 1977. The song selection is largely older. The first set, with the exception of Lazy Lightning > Supplication, a duo from Bob Weir’s side project Kingfish, looks like one from 1973. But the songs have a new vitality. I’d chalk up that aspect to Jerry Garcia. He’s in rich form here, both on guitar and vocals. Slower numbers like They Love Each Other and Row Jimmy burn, and Morning Dew glows then ignites at the end. And the St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen sandwich is super gooey. (NFA is part of why I’m married to my best friend. True story: LIRNFA are six important letters for us.) Also notable: Donna Godchaux adds more than she detracts, which was not always the case pre-retirement. My view is that her partnership with Maria Muldaur in Jerry’s contemporaneous solo band helped her find a space in a group setting like this.
(Photo: David Kwan)
Then there are the newer songs. First, the aforementioned Lazy Lightning > Supplication, which features an excellent jam in the segue. Second, the reworked, disco-fied Dancing in the Street – a Motown chestnut that the band absolutely killed in ’69-70 (check out the classic version from 5/6/70, which is my go-to), but dropped – from the then-recently recorded Terrapin Station that closes the first set. Fantastic version. Third, the new duo of Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain – the former from 1974’s Mars Hotel record, and the latter from TS. This is the highlight of the show for me. Listen to bassist Phil Lesh dropping bombs at the beginning of Scarlet, wow. And, as my brother and GDC teammate noted on text yesterday, “I usually think the transition jam makes Scarlet Fire, but Cornell is all tail.” Translation: The heat comes not in the middle, but at the end. Fourth, Bobby’s amazing Estimated Prophet, also from TS, which itself in this era usually opened a duo with the older Eyes of the World, but here soars on its own.
(Photo: Lawrence Reichman)
As OM mentioned in his piece, many of us encountered this show via tape-trading. I think that my first copy (part of it, anyway?) came from an n-th generation cassette borrowed from a cool East-Coast frat bro. (Hey, Pete, hope you’re well.) Through the hiss of that many dubs, I could still tell that this one was special. Maybe I had the Jerry Moore recording; maybe I had something else. That brings us to sound quality. And that’s another story.
Among Healy’s sound crew was Betty Cantor-Jackson.
Betty had been with the band for years, and she was appreciated, particularly by bassist Phil Lesh, for her great ear in mixing at venues. She was also appreciated for her own recordings, the so-called “Betty Boards” – 350+ reels of tape from shows between 1971 and 1980. When Betty left, she took those tape reels with her, and a big piece of Dead history, including 5/8/77, disappeared. (If LN could afford A-list talent, that last sentence would feature Cate Blanchett reprising her voice-over from the start of Fellowship of the Ring. The ring, friends, is 5/8/77.)
That piece of history disappeared until 1986. Apparently, that year, Betty lost her home and moved her possessions into a storage unit. When she couldn’t make payments on the unit, its contents were sold at auction. Somebody bought the tape reels, which like other recordings, were copied and traded – thanks largely to Rob Eaton, guitarist for GD cover-band Dark Star Orchestra. (Here is an excellent Relix article on that.) Many ended up on the Archive. At some point in the last year or so, the Betty Boards themselves ended up in the vault. Long-time GD archivist David Lemieux and engineer Jeffrey Norman did their magic, and now 5/8/77 is an official release. That show, along with 5/5, 5/7, and 5/9, is part of the May 1977: Get Shown the Light box set. (All four shows are truly legendary.) Here is what’s become known as simply “Cornell” on Spotify:
And here is Cornell as recorded by Jerry Moore.
And here is the “freshly remastered Betty Board with AUD splices, by Rob Eaton.” This copy, according to ECM, has been download 556,000+ times. (Yes, there are still ways to download shows from the Archive. Email me for instructions: firstname.lastname@example.org).
And here is the Pitchfork review of the new box set. It’s insightful and better-written than this post, for sure.
In GD posts, I try to troll the comments in the Archive for pithy stuff, but I didn’t for this show. Cornell speaks for itself. Is it the best show ever? Idk. I’m a music snob with a documented aversion to popular music. If I were to pick only one GD show to take to a desert island, would it be 5/8/77? I might go with 8/27/72 – three sets, all the goodness of that year and that Bird Song. I might pick 2/18/71 for the debuts. I might pick 4/29/71 for the Alligator Jam, which is what hooked me. I even might pick the Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam, for that matter.
Shit. I’d pick 5/8. It’s the best. It is.
So, yeah, btw. If you were wondering, GD Weekly from last year has morphed into GD Monthly. (I was gonna run out of stuff to cover at that pace, anyway.) Talk atcha about the Good Old Grateful Dead in June.