May Eighth is practically a religious holiday for Deadheads. To the converted, no more needs to be said. The mere utterance of this phrase immediately calls to mind a live show of such technical precision it is now immortalized in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. But to paraphrase from the Hagaddah, “what makes Cornell different from all other nights?”
Cornell long ago secured its place atop the ranking of greatest Dead shows of all-time, but even in that rarefied air, opinions vary. Declaring something as “the best” on a topic as subjective as music, and particularly among a rabid fan base that runs the spectrum from octogenarians to Millenials, is impossible.
I prefer to think of Cornell as the best example of that era of the Dead’s music - which is no small thing. The band had “retired” in October 1974 amid financial problems, burn out, and an interest among the members in pursuing solo projects. A four night Winterland run closed this chapter of what is known as “Jazz-era” Dead - shows punctuated by lengthy improvisational jams, trumpet and saxophone accompaniment, and a numbing perfection that makes one show indistinguishable from the other in the high quality of the musicianship. At times, these shows stretched to nearly four hours, and signature versions of songs like Dark Star, Eyes of the World, and Stella Blue abound.
But even in retirement, the band never quite left the stage. A sui generis show in March 1975 stands as a lone example of what can best be described as Prog Rock on LSD, a 40 minute set comprising the entire album Blues For Allah featuring Merl Saunders on keyboard and jams so thick you feel like you are being sucked into a black hole.
When the band emerged fully in 1976, the sound changed too. With Mickey Hart back in the fold, the group moved away from five-piece jazz influences and into a more traditional rock ’n’ roll sound splashed with a light coating of pop exemplified in the early 1977 album Terrapin Station. The band also settled on what would become the standard format for their live shows (but for some acoustic/electric sets in 1980) until Garcia’s passing in 1995: two sets with a “drums/space” segment midway through the second set, and a single encore.
By early 1977, with the tour rust shaken off, the Dead alit for a spring tour for the ages, invading the Northeast with hot warm up shows in New York City, New Haven, Passaic, Boston and Springfield before landing in Ithaca, New York on the night of May 8th. The band burst out of the gate with an aggressive version of New Mingelwood Blues featuring hard charging leads by Garcia and speaker-rattling bass bombs by Lesh. First sets allowed the band to root through its back catalogue of musical influences - rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk, and Cornell is no different. Be it the ragtime feel of Deal or the country standard Mama Tried (with Weir giving a “thanks, Mom” nod on Mother’s Day). The band is on point and as will be clear when the fireworks really start later, the unsung hero of the night is Betty Jackson-Cantor, whose mix is sheer perfection - the instruments blending so seamlessly you would be excused for thinking the band was in a studio, the vocals clear as a bell. Of course, the band was not above contemporary influences and the stretched out set closer, Dancin’ in the Streets, a song of protest and resistance in the 60s, is rearranged in a hypnotic disco tempo that just will not stop.
For those of us who grew up on Cornell via cassette tape, the second set starts anachronistically. Can we rate different versions of Take A Step Back and deem this one the best? There is something in Jerry’s “horribly smashed” comment that always makes me chuckle and Bob’s admonition that you don’t want all your friends up front to be “real bug eyed” is just so Bobby. The band must have been satisfied with the crowd’s response, because Scarlet>Fire starts with a musical explosion that floods your eardrums in a way that every time I hear it, I mutter to myself “perfect from note one.” And it is. There is sheer joy in Garcia’s voice and magic in his finger tips as he leads the band through this staple of the Dead’s canon. Jerry’s leads are matched by Lesh’s throbbing bass and Keith Godchaux’s rich piano counterpoint.
The thing you notice is how effortless the playing sounds, like the notes are arranged in front of them and the band is simply following a chart, but what you are experiencing instead is a group performing at a creative peak. The transition from Scarlet into Fire is extended, as Garcia starts playing the line until Lesh decides to join. While latter-day Heads are familiar with the coupling of these two songs, this was all new territory back in ’77. The band brings the funk as Phil lays down a groove that will get your toes tapping, with Jerry picking up on the beat and away we go through verses and soaring guitar solos. Fire is also a perfect example of Weir’s unconventional but “just exactly perfect” (for the Dead) rhythm guitar playing. He does not play the rhythm so much as embellish Garcia’s leads, punctuating the musical themes while allowing Garcia’s brilliance to take center stage.
Weir’s Estimated Prophet was a newcomer to the live rotation and was played frequently throughout 1977, including at Cornell. But even after a few months, the band was already stretching the relatively straight-forward studio version into a slinkier live performer, with Garcia leaning into his wah-wah pedal and the song taking on a bit of a reggae feel.
As events unfolded, it is easy to see Estimated as a sort of palate cleanser before the St Stephen > NFA > St Stephen main course. Part of what makes Cornell so memorable is even the minor hiccups are perfect, as in Donna’s too-soon entry into the “lady fingers” stanza of St Stephen, her voice ephemeral and drifting off as if it was always planned that way. The band barrels into Not Fade Away with gusto. Of course, Not Fade Away in the 70s was not the second-set crowd pleasing love letter from the band to the audience it became in later years. No, in Ithaca, New York, NFA was a balls-out rocker, stretched through and through and left hung out to dry, an orgy of musicianship that gives you hammer throwing guitar leads, room-rattling bass drops, and piano playing that will assault your senses in ways you did not think possible.
And then, after a brief segue back into St Stephen, Jerry throws out Morning Dew, a 14-minute masterpiece of music that has within it moments of hushed silence, where you can hear a pin drop in a venue filled with 4,800 people, interspersed with rich instrumentals that punctuate the lyrics as the song builds toward a crescendo that if heard under the proper influence, may literally make you feel like you are seeing God. It all comes to a head as Jerry goes for ever more ambitious leads, his fingers fanning his guitar at such a speed the room starts to spin; and, as he bellows the final song’s final line, “I guess it does not matter . . . anyway” Keith hits a piano run that puts an exclamation point on the proceedings. The song will literally take your breath away, Weir’s meek “thank you” not nearly doing justice to what may be the greatest single song performance in the band’s 30-year career. The night ends with a quintessential Dead coda - One More Saturday Night - played on Sunday.
Whew. Much has been written about Cornell, particularly with its “official” release last year around the time of the 40th anniversary of the concert. For me, the show has been a part of my life for going on 25 years. I know every note, from the wonky one Jerry hits to bring the band back into St Stephen to the one Phil plays signaling the full transition into Fire on the Mountain. I have played “air piano” as Keith closes out Morning Dew and mimicked Weir’s A-YOW during One More Saturday Night. Whether Cornell is the band’s greatest performance or not is a dorm room debate for music lovers, many of whom are well into their fifth (or sixth) decade of living and beside the point of simply appreciating a band playing at the height of their powers on a night that is now part of musical history.
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