*Continued from Part 1*
Well, folks, this may be it. My favorite show, by one of my favorite bands, ever. May 21, 1977…
The first set is so impeccable, and played with so much emotion, it may just be their finest first set ever released. A first set that is so strong, so mind melding perfect, that I find myself reaching for it whenever I need a friend to help me through the day. It turns rainy days sunny, and cold nights warm. It surges with electricity, and lays back gently when you need it to. Perfection.
“Bertha” kicks things off and the good times are apparent from the first note. There’s just something about those chords, those sunny, delightfully rhythmic chords, that make everything feel great. Garcia’s guitar sounds especially sparkly here – his leads are amazingly clear throughout the entire show – as he sets off on a spiraling solo that goes everywhere you want it to. Heck, first song of the night and I’m already completely mesmerized. You just know it’s going to be a good night…
As the set moves on we are treated to absolutely excellent versions of “Me and My Uncle,” “They Love Each Other” (which has a particularly funky bounce to it), and “Cassidy.” “Jack-A-Roe” comes in slowly as the band works their way into a fine cowboy groove that would make any saloon boy happy. Garcia takes two excellent solos that exemplify his clean picking style and unique ability to straddle the line between rock and bluegrass.
“Jack Straw” is greeted with much appreciative applause and the band doesn’t disappoint, delivering a fantastic version full of heart and emotion. The jam portion is excellent and both Jerry and Bob are in fine voice. This is followed by perfect renditions of “Tennessee Jed,” “New Minglewood Blues” (with some especially funky interplay between Jerry and Keith) and another laid back “Row Jimmy.”
There is just something about this fantastic first set that is utterly difficult to describe. There’s a vibe in the air. A vibe that existed only for a brief moment and was, thankfully, exquisitely captured on analog tape lo’ those many years ago. I remember playing this first disc for my dad one day, in the middle of summer, in a house about a block from the shore. “This,” he said, “is nice.” Couldn’t agree more pops!
Of course, like I’ve said so many times before, this is the Grateful Dead in 1977, so they aren’t done yet. After a rousing “Passenger” to start disc 2, they end the first set on a high note. A very high note. A note so high you may just start to feel the warm May air wafting through your speakers. I’m speaking of course, about “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain.” And, oh Lord, what a “Scarlet > Fire” it is…
The pace, like the rest of the show, is laid back and in no hurry. The band hits the “Scarlet” groove completely locked into one another and there’s no looking back. If you could capture a lazy summer day in sound this would be it. When the first jam hits, Jerry is so deep in the cut you wonder how he’ll ever get back out. This portion of the jam, the first guitar solo of the song, is the telling point of “Scarlet Begonias” – if this goes well, it all goes well. And man, does it go freaking well!
Jerry darts back and forth through the percolating rhythm section during the subsequent jam. He takes off, not too fast now, and he and the band settle into a very fine groove that is the perfect blend of tight and loose. Everything is just exactly perfect as they take their time, each note earning its rightful place in the jam, and each moment achieving a beauty like the low light of a summer sunrise. Somehow, someone starts steering the ship (Lesh perhaps?) and before you even know what’s happening we are thrust into the surging power of “Fire on the Mountain.”
Jerry’s Mu-Tron guitar filter gets switched on and the whole place suddenly lights up with a hushed awe. Yes, we are now properly situated in the midst of a stunning “Fire on the Mountain” that takes all the time it needs to continue the good times. Wifey often comments how wonderful the small feedback swells are around the 6 minute mark and I couldn’t agree more. The band is deep, deep into the cut and you realize that there is nothing like a 1977 “Fire” jam. Nothing. Jerry and the boys bring it back home and everything for the past 25 mintues or so has been just like it should be. Not too explosive, not too hurried, but just right. And so ends the first set (!!).
Disc 2 continues with an oft fiery “Samson and Delilah” and heartfelt “Brown Eyed Woman” with a beautiful Garcia solo. This is follwed by two hidden bonus tracks from October 11, 1977 in the form of a long, soulful “Dancin’ in the Streets,” and a wonderfully welcome and almost sunny “Dire Wolf.”
Disc 3 defies all logic with an unbelievable suite of songs. A suite of songs that takes you on a complete journey of the mind and touches on almost every musical aspect of the Dead’s career. For well over an hour the band hurdles full throttle through every emotion they’ve ever had with “Estimated Prophet > He’s Gone > Drums > The Other One > Comes a Time > St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen!” Whew!
“Estimated Prophet” is a joy as always. These ’77 versions were always a treat with Lesh holding everything together on bass and Jerry mutating his way all over the outer reaches of the cosmos. This morphs into one of the most powerful versions of “He’s Gone” I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. The song itself is played perfectly, with excellent interplay between the musicians, great Garcia solos, and spot-on singing. But it’s the jam afterwards that really drives this 15 minute monster as the band picks up a boogiefied rhythm and Jerry just starts cooking along without a care in the world.
“He’s Gone” stumbles into some heavy “Drums” that eventually break down the dam to a deliriously intense “The Other One” that somehow time travels all the way back to the late 60s for sheer power and creativity. Lesh is a monster here, rattling the very fabric of time with some slippery bass lines. Somewhere around the 3 minute mark it sounds like Jerry remembers he has a volume knob and he cranks it. Suddenly everything takes another surge forward and the intesity continues to grow. Eventually the jam settles into a quiet lull after the storm and we find ourselves stepping out into the sunlight…
“Comes a Time” takes all the time it deserves in its 11 plus minutes as Jerry and the boys stop time for some major inner reflection. Garcia’s first solo is magnificant, but it’s the concluding jam that really sets this version on fire. Jerry’s guitar tone is dripping with honey as he winds his way through melodic riffs one after another. The band picks up what he’s laying down and for a few moments it is pure beauty in music. A truly monumental version of this rare gem of a song.
As the last notes of “Comes a Time” ring out, “St. Stephen” rings in and the crowd couldn’t be happier. In typical ’77 fashion it is impeccably played, floating by like a summer’s day and landing directly in the path of a joyous, grooving “Not Fade Away.” Unlike the thunderous version from October ’77 on disc 2, this takes a more subtle approach and focuses more on maintaining the good times vibe (with a seriously rocking beat of course!). The sun shines brightly that May evening and the band brings it all back to “St. Stephen” and a hot “One More Saturday Night” to close out the show. Amazing!
Well, there you have it. Dick’s Picks Vol.29. One of the Grateful Dead’s finest releases. If I could recommend only one Grateful Dead release to anyone, this would be it. If I had to choose just one release among my vast collection of Dead recordings, this would be it. It is six discs of pure perfection. It is everything you could ever want from a Dead show and then some. The sound is impeccable (seriously, it’s fantastic), and the performances are exciting, dazzling, and simply mind blowing. This is just. Exactly. Perfect.
*Be sure to check out Part 1 to read about Discs 1-3, May 19, 1977!*
Tracklist (May 21, 1977)
- “Bertha” – 7:22
- “Me and My Uncle” – 3:52
- “They Love Each Other” – 8:10
- “Cassidy” – 5:21
- “Jack-A-Roe” – 7:00
- “Jack Straw” – 6:13
- “Tennessee Jed” – 9:41
- “New Minglewood Blues” – 5:38
- “Row Jimmy” – 11:28
- “Passenger” – 4:15
- “Scarlet Begonias” – 11:44
- “Fire on the Mountain” – 12:53
- “Samson and Delilah” – 7:45
- “Brown-Eyed Women” – 5:32
- “Dancing in the Streets” (October 11, 1977) – 17:38
- “Dire Wolf” (October 11, 1977) – 3:52
- “Estimated Prophet” – 11:27
- “He’s Gone” – 15:36
- “Drums” – 4:09
- “The Other One” – 11:39
- “Comes a Time” – 11:52
- “Saint Stephen” – 4:37
- “Not Fade Away” – 11:15
- “Saint Stephen” – 1:46
- “One More Saturday Night” – 5:01