How do you review a whole tour -- or even a part of a tour -- by a band?
Well, you first have to get yourself in the headspace where the band in question is/was at a given moment in time.
In the case of the Grateful Dead, 1977 was prime period of ascension for the group, having just been signed to Arista Records and putting out -- arguably -- one of their most complete musical statements since 1973's Wake of the Flood, the lush Terrapin Station. They had taken a couple years off between 1974 and 1976, only performing one real show in 1975 (a now legendary FM broadcast from San Francisco's tiny Great American Music Hall and the inaugural release in a series, One From The Vault). Additionally, 1977 marked a period where second drummer Mickey Hart was fully and completely back in the band.
Everything was fitting together neatly in the group, and they were playing with a tightness and vigor that rivaled their classic 1972 European tour.
In many ways, Spring 1977 exceeded the '72 run and the month of May was a particular time when all the stars aligned. The Grateful Dead played some of the finest shows in the band's storied history. May 8th, 1977 has become something of a holy grail for Dead Heads due to a widely circulating -- but still unofficially released -- soundboard recording made by then engineer for the band, the great Betty Cantor Jackson. I'm sure there is some significant backstory as to why that concert has not been put out as of yet, but in the interim, the good folks at Rhino have teamed up with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead to issue the next best thing: a collection of key shows from around that same period which have note yet seen the light of day in any official archive series releases (ie. Dick's Picks, Road Trips, etc.).
What we get is an absolutely stunning and wonderful multi-disc box set that truly captures the essence of the tour, replete with a celestially designed, die-cut box housing gorgeous paper back novel sized cases for each show, all designed by Grammy Award-winning graphic artist Masaki Koike. This is sort of like a Grateful Dead version of those wonderful old leather backed books you saw on your grandfathers bookshelves when you were a little kid. Only the greatest stories told here are much more sonically engaging and may well make you want to get up and dance around the room alone or with your life mate or your dog or cat or whomever is available.
Indeed, when the band kicks into versions of "Eyes of the World" coming out of "Estimated Prophet" during the Saint Louis show on May 15th, you are going on a journey of epic proportions. Imagine the funkiest dance groove this side of Bohannon played with the flair of a steaming jazz fusion group like Chick Corea's Return To Forever and you have an idea of the sound I'm talking about. This was a far cry from lazy sounding shows the band did in 1976 as they were finding their footing (or were losing their footing a year or so later in 1978 -- yeah, I'm not a huge fan of the '78 shows folks).
Its interesting because listening to the sets as a collection you can kinda hear when the band was regrouping its energy. So for a show like May 17th in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where they break out "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo" 2nd song into the show, it sets a somewhat laid back tone for the evening. Not that they were playing any less good. But after playing for a radio broadcast on May 13th in Chicago and the sweet set in Saint Louis on the 15th, perhaps they needed some breathing room. It was also Mickey Hart's birthday that night so a bit of celebratory breathing room was in order.
It's all good, as they say.
And there in lies the joy of buying a box set like this because you can just put on a show and enjoy it for what it's worth or you can cherry pick version of tunes to compare and contrast. May 8th 1977 may still be the holy grail of Grateful Dead shows, but clearly these performances have many riches to offer in terms of aural enjoyment and fun.
This 14-disc set delivers five complete shows (all dates after Cornell) mastered in HDCD by Jeffrey Norman at Mockingbird Mastering:
• St. Paul Civic Center Arena, St. Paul, MN (5/11)
• Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL (5/12 & 5/13)
• St. Louis Arena, St. Louis MO (5/15)
• Coliseum at the University Of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL (5/17)
Sonics wise, these CDs sound pretty tremendous and are arguably better than any prior versions that may have been circulating. Notably they have been put through special time-base correction and restoration using Plangent Processes' technological wizardry to make sure the tapes are all running at the proper speed and as free of warbles, wows and flutters as possible. Cool technology!
Wrap this all up with a 50 page book featuring essays by long-time Dead Head and scribe Steve Silberman and you get a loving package for the ages. Even the mailer box it ships in features custom design work (I'm thus keeping mine in the box to store and protect the set).
I am very happy to have this collection. If you are a Dead Head, you should get one too. Its that nice.