Was the Grateful Dead's concert on May 8, 1977 the band's best performance ever?
by Nicholas G. Meriwether/archivist at Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz
A month after the Grateful Dead’s powerhouse spring 1977 tour, future vault Archivist Dick Latvala singled out the tapes of one show as particularly noteworthy. Writing in his journal, he commented: “After a few hearings I remain pretty convinced that this is the best show I’ve yet heard from the 1977 tour. Of course, there are shows where they excel on some of the above tunes, but overall, I haven’t heard a finer show. Every song is done well and what is extremely nice is that they put extra charge into some of their age-old standards that usually always sound the same. The jam that ends the second set is outstanding. It has to be one of the best “Not Fade Away”s I’ve ever heard ... “Morning Dew” was possibly the best version yet, with a burning finish ...” Knowledgeable fans would not be surprised to discover that he was discussing the performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977. What is surprising is that Latvala’s remarks were based on tapes recorded by a fan in the audience, with all the sonic flaws that such tapes generally have. When a cache of soundboard tapes surfaced in 1985, the Cornell show was among the more than 250 hours of pristine recordings that would electrify Deadhead tape collectors, and in the eyes of some fans, change the nature of Deadhead tape collecting forever.
How Cornell came to be such a revered show is an interesting story. For eight years after the show, only audience recordings circulated; Latvala’s impressions were based on one of these, capturing the crowd’s ecstatic response in thunderous detail. Audience members also recall the quiet moments as well. One fan wrote that “What made the show unique was not so much the band’s playing as much as the unusually high level of appreciation and gratitude on the part of the audience. During a quiet moment in one jam, I believe it was during ‘Morning Dew,’ there was nary a whoop nor a yell, an extremely unusual occurrence at a Dead show. I think that the band sensed the high potential of the evening and ran with it.” His reflections capture the feel of the show preserved in the recordings, even if some of those memories are colored by the intensity of the experience – one Cornell student recalled the band’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired,” though the tapes do reveal a number of minor slips. For most, however, those not only don’t detract from the power of the performance but actually enhance it. After all, the Dead were legendary for their ability to bounce back from mistakes; indeed, often those recoveries were what produced some of their most inspired playing and flights of improvisation. As one fan who attended the show put it, “When I listen to the tape of that show now, I hear the band reveling in the perfection of their art – at one with their audience and at peace with themselves.”
Other fans agreed, and their enthusiasm helped propel the audience recording of the show throughout Deadhead tape trading circles. Over time, however, the aging multigeneration audience recordings increasingly relegated the show to “you had to be there” status. Fans with access to low-generation copies of the tapes helped maintain the show’s reputation, however, and when the soundboard surfaced, the show experienced a renaissance. The story of how those tapes surfaced is recounted in an interview with sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson in Volume Two of The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, the same volume in which Dupree’s Diamond News publisher John Dwork reviews the recording. Praising it as one of the band’s greatest performances, he concludes, “What a Mother’s Day. What a concert. What a tape. But words fall far short of adequately conveying the power of this music. ... This is the stuff of dreams.”
His opinions are widely shared, though over time some fans grew increasingly annoyed with what they saw was uncritical adulation heaped on the show. As DeadBase editor John Scott opined, “This show is overrated – though that isn’t saying much. If one were to look at the [DeadBase] Feedback results, this would appear to be far and away the single best Grateful Dead concert anywhere, any time. It isn’t, but it puts on a pretty good imitation.” And even he concedes that “this concert, at any sound quality, still stands as a crucial tape in anyone’ s collection,” singling out the epic, second set “Morning Dew” as “a religious experience—certainly one of the finest moments in Grateful Dead history.” For many Deadheads, the soundboard recording—a breathtaking mix that showcases Cantor-Jackson’s skills, and ears—is testament to why the effort to collect so many live performance tapes is warranted. Others mourn the way that this crystalline soundboard changed tape trading and even colored fan perception of the band’s performing history, as Mike Dolgushkin wrote in his thoughtful review of the New Year’s Eve 1976 release in Dead Letters Volume 4.
But even naysayers admit that Cornell ’77 stands as an amazing performance in a historic tour. Nor has that consensus changed over the years. In surveys conducted by fanzine Dupree’s Diamond News and DeadBase, fans consistently chose Cornell ’77 as their favorite recording; as recently as 2009, a New York Times survey ranked it overwhelmingly the favorite of four highly regarded shows, giving it more than twice the votes of the runner-up, the highly regarded pair of shows at the Fillmore East on February 13 and 14, 1970. Latvala did not revisit his notebook when the soundboard surfaced, but in 1983 he did. Nearly six years after he penned his first impression, he followed up with a brief note: “Enough can’t be said about this superb show.” He was right.
About Nicholas Meriwether
Nicholas Meriwether has published scholarly essays on Southern history, American literature and archival history. His work on the Dead has appeared in a variety of popular and scholarly periodicals, including All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (Cambridge Scholars, 2007), Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey (2012), and the scholarly series Dead Letters, which he edited. He is the founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Dead Studies, published by the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz, where he serves as Grateful Dead Archivist.