“Please forget you knew my name…”
There are many moments throughout the Grateful Dead’s incredibly long career where it seemed as if the Gods themselves were smiling down on the band from the Heavens. And perhaps, at least to this listener, those smiles shone none brighter than during May 1977. There was just something in the air…
Dick’s Picks Vol. 29 features two complete shows from 1977, May 19 and 21, spread across six discs (!). The shows complete a perfect trio when combined with Dick’s Picks Vol. 3 from May 22, and serve as further testament to the almost impossible perfection that was May ’77.
Sound throughout all six discs is simply fantastic. Oh Lord how beautiful the sound is! There is a thick warmth and atmosphere that perfectly encapsulates every single nuance of the musicians – Garcia’s guitar is crystal clear, Lesh’s bass is tight and round, Weir’s angular rhythms are a joy as always, Godchaux’s piano is full of life, and the twin drumming of Kreutzman and Hart is dynamically astounding. With each ensuing jam the sheer quality of the recording becomes more and more apparent as this mere 2-track recording exudes a distinct quality somehow missing from modern recordings. Oh man is it clean!
Because of the immensity of this release, and the sheer fact that both shows are complete perfection in every way, not to mention some fantastically amazing hidden tracks on discs 2 and 5, we simply have to divide this review into two parts. So, take a step back, and yet another step back, and let’s take a look at the majestic beauty that is May 19, 1977.
After kicking things off with a steady rolling “Promised Land” the band gets right down to business with a stunning “Sugaree.” Jerry is in fine voice here but even better is his guitar which sings from the heavens during the three distinct jams. There was something magical about these ’77 “Sugarees” and this may very well be one of the best, not only of the year but of their entire career. The band moves along, united as one, lead by Jerry’s sweet soulful voice and expressive guitar. As the jam progresses Jerry just does not want to let go of the jam as he gets ever deeper into the beauty of it all. By the third jam the band eases into it so gently you would think they are just going to ride it out like that to the end.
But, this is the Grateful Dead in 1977…
Slowly, surely, things pick up steam as the musicians all search for, and find, just the right groove. Jerry flies in out of nowhere and just starts spewing notes all over the place. The jam suddenly hits a huge surge and then flies effortlessly back into the main portion of the song. All is right with the world for 16 minutes as the band does their best to bring as much emotion and passion as they can to this enduring Dead classic. This is, simply stated, awesome.
The first set continues with a wonderful “Peggy O” that features a gorgeous Garcia solo that is so perfectly played it hardly seems possible to have been achieved in a single take, let alone in front of a ecstatic live audience. “Row Jimmy” sneaks in with a very laid back vibe while the always welcome “Loser” displays a typically moving Garcia solo. Fantastic!
Disc two closes out the first set with a very funky “Dancing in the Streets” that really takes off during the jam portion. The band is completely locked together as one as Jerry delivers a spiraling solo full of various twists and turns. His years of banjo playing come to the forefront here as his playing is clean and precise – at one point the jam actually starts to sound like some sort of funky rock hoedown of sorts. The band fades things out and takes a short break.
A typically smoking “Samson and Delilah” starts off the second set followed by a wonderful “Ramble on Rose” featuring a typical ’77 psychedelic ragtime dixieland solo (yes, you read that right). “Estimated Prophet” features the band once again locking together in a very intense groove as Jerry does his mutated guitar excursions over top of Lesh’s thick groove. Very cool as always!
Following “Estimated Prophet” on disc 2, we are treated to three bonus cuts from October 11, 1977 in the form of “Not Fade Away,” “Wharf Rat,” and “Around and Around.” Both “Wharf Rat” and “Around and Around” are indeed well played and make for perfect additions to the set. It is the “Not Fade Away,” however, that is truly, truly splendid. Coming out of what must have been some really serious drums, Kreutzman and Hart deliver a pounding beat that can only be described as tribal war drums. This tandem rhythm sets the stage for a long intro jam that just cooks. The singing begins and then we are quickly thrust back into the jam with a seriously heavy fury.
Thunder comes in from all sides as the band keeps growing in powerful menace. Around 8:29 Jerry gets into a unique, hypnotic repeating figure that seems to be unlike anything I’ve heard him do before or since. The band continues to swell around him, the drums in particular, as they make their way into a perfectly played call and response between all the musicians. The drummers pick up a start/stop rhythm as Jerry, Phil, and Keith all take turns riffing in between the rhythms. This jam has long been one of my favorites by the band as it is quite intensely ridiculous. Hard to imagine it’s only a bonus track!
Disc 3 ushers in a suite of songs that somehow defy all logic. After a perfect, and if you ask me, definitive, “Terrapin Station,” the band sets off for an epic sonic adventure that resides just this side of mellow fantastic. “Playing in the Band,” which always goes off into uncharted territory no matter what year it is, blasts off into a laid back stratosphere. No sonic freak outs here, instead they sail calmly down a psychedelic river that never ceases to stay interesting. The band takes their time exploring the outer reaches of music and melodic space, gently gliding through the air like so many thistles on a warm spring day.
And then, as reporter Keith Morrison often says, something strange happens…
The band begins to pick up steam as the rhythms start to lock together and the formless jam suddenly starts to take shape. And then it happens, inexplicably and without warning. Suddenly we are at the tail end of “Uncle John’s Band.” A quick moment of silence, the band comes in singing the familiar line “how does the song go,” and then we are situated back at the very beginning of “Uncle John’s Band!” Yes, somehow the band gathered their collective minds and backed into a sort of inverted UJB that serves as a backdrop for some truly beautiful jamming moments. Un-freaking-believable!
This then leads to thunderous “Drums,” a truly beautiful “The Wheel,” an aching “China Doll,” and back into “Playing in the Band” (with an outro jam to set your socks on fire) to round out the set and finish this truly monumental show.
I don’t know what words, if any, can accurately describe how amazing 5-19-77 truly is. Without a doubt it’s one of their best shows of the year, and at least for this listener, one of their best of all time. I would be more than happy if they simply released this show alone and then moved on to the next volume in the series. But instead, they graciously decided to couple it with a show from 2 nights later. A show that changed my life. A show that just may be my favorite of all time…
*Be sure to check out Part 2 to read about Discs 4-6, May 21, 1977!*
Tracklist (May 19, 1977)
- “The Promised Land” – 6:14
- “Sugaree” – 16:21
- “El Paso” – 5:04
- “Peggy-O” – 8:34
- “Looks Like Rain” – 8:59
- “Row Jimmy” – 11:29
- “Passenger” – 3:59
- “Loser” – 8:38
- “Dancing in the Streets” – 13:47
- “Samson and Delilah” – 8:00
- “Ramble on Rose” – 8:38
- “Estimated Prophet” – 10:09
- “Not Fade Away” (October 11, 1977) – 16:39
- “Wharf Rat” (October 11, 1977) – 13:41
- “Around and Around” (October 11, 1977) – 8:36
- “Terrapin Station” – 11:43
- “Playing in the Band” – 11:07
- “Uncle John’s Band” – 11:47
- “Drums” – 5:28
- “The Wheel” – 7:24
- “China Doll” – 7:50
- “Playing in the Band” – 10:33