1977 was one of several career high points for the Grateful Dead, characterized by consistently strong playing, along with the introduction of several of their most challenging and enduring original compositions. While praise has been heaped on the band’s May 8th outing at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, for me that year will always be about two venues – Winterland and the relatively off-the-beaten track Chick Evans Field House at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
The Dead played Winterland more times in 1977 than any other year, with ten shows beating out the eight in 1974 and six in both 1972 and 1978. I’m both proud and embarrassed to say I went to all of the 1977 Winterland shows, despite relocating to Chicago for graduate school in the fall of that year.
Their first show of that impressive run, on Friday, March 18th, essentially introduced yet another manifestation of the band to the old skating rink. The show started pretty conventionally, with a bunch of familiar songs like “Promised Land” and “It’s All Over Now.” What was different was the intensity of the band’s playing. When the Dead returned from hiatus the previous summer, their tempos had been relatively languid, the jams generally concise, and the playing more focused than inspired – kind of a chamber ensemble incarnation of the fire breathing beast of a few years earlier. During the latter part of 1976, as the musicians regained comfort and confidence, their energy levels began to ramp up and they began to take more chances with the pathways they charted between songs.
A mid-set highlight was “Sugaree.” When the song emerged mid-1971, it ran a relatively brief six minutes and change. Sugaree’s duration had gradually expanded over the years but, that night at Winterland, it emerged as a full-blown showcase for Garcia’s extravagant soloing, clocking in at nearly a quarter hour, with Lesh clearly egging the guitarist to pile one soloed chorus atop another. Besides just being long, the song was deftly orchestrated, steadily building in intensity before coming back to earth on the final line. The set concluded with what by now was a fairly standard piece of the repertoire, “Scarlet Begonias” which led through a long coda with wordless vocalizations by Donna into something new – a shuffling groove shifting between B and E chords that evolved into the first live Grateful Dead version of “Fire on the Mountain.” However, this wasn’t exactly the song’s debut. Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter penned the tune some in the early 1970s and Hart recorded a few versions of the tune for several unreleased albums between 1972 and 1974. It was to be the title tune of his second solo album, which was rejected by Warner Brothers. A bit later, on 5/30/75, Jerry Garcia and David Freiberg joined Mickey Hart’s Diga Rhythm band in Golden Gate Park for a beautiful instrumental version of the song. Although it appeared on the sole Diga album as “Happiness is Drumming,” it was clearly introduced by Diga percussionist Zakir Hussain as “Fire On the Mountain”. The Winterland debut of the song, now sung by Garcia, was a scorcher, with Garcia really letting loose with the now-signature power wah from his Mutron effects pedal. Quite a way to wrap up an outstanding first set. As I ventured out into Winterland’s lobby during the break, a girl nearby was joyfully singing the new song’s chorus.
The meat of the show was in the second set, which opened conventionally with energetic versions of “Samson and Delilah,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Ship of Fools,” which was delivered at a much brisker tempo than usual. Next came the hometown debut of the band’s other two new songs. This was long before the advent of online songlists, not to mention streaming, but one moderately timely pipeline to information on the Dead was a column in the monthly free music paper BAM, which featured a regular column entitled “Dead Ahead” that was penned by various authors, but mainly by future GD Hour Host and Dead scholar David Gans. In what I believe would have been the March iteration of the column, Gans described the band’s two new songs, which had first been played at a pair of concerts down south, the first in San Bernadino on Feb. 26 followed by a show at UC Santa Barbara the following night. Gans intimated that these songs, particularly the magnum opus “Terrapin Station” were something special, and boy was he right.
“Estimated Prophet,” a Weir-Barlow collaboration, featured a reggae beat and lyrics that recounted what must have been a common occurrence for Weir – a meeting with a drug casualty with a Messiah complex. At that time, Weir had an ornery affection for the 7/4 time signature (some would say 7/8), a counterintuitive meter that was earlier used in his“Lazy Lightning” and even earlier in the rarely performed Dead instrumental workout that has been accurately and informally dubbed “The Seven.” Estimated Prophet” features slow, slightly ominous sounding verses and a soaring chorus that portrays California as the narrator’s promised land. All in all, somewhat of a musical mongrel, but one that is both haunting and surprisingly danceable.
So much has been written about “Terrapin Station” that I can’t add much here. Robert Hunter’s brilliant epic poem may have been severely edited by Garcia, but it was still arguably the most complex and lengthy song (as opposed to an open-ended improvisational vehicle like “Dark Star”) that the band ever performed. Unlike that tune and much of the Dead’s jammed-out repertoire, “Terrapin Station” is composed fairly literally, and did not vary much in instrumental structure from performance to performance. However, it did move through several distinct phases, both lyrically and instrumentally, starting with the familiar folk tale of the soldier, the sailor, and the lady with a fan, and then moving somewhat abruptly into the land of Terrapin, where a headlong train seems headed for the same dire fate that befell Casey Jones.
Hunter’s narrative went well beyond the portion that the Dead performed, and the song’s Winterland debut was unique in the band’s performance history in including an extended instrumental coda that appeared, with lyrics and all kinds of baroque embellishments, on the studio version of the tune on the Terrapin Station album later that year. This section, which apparently was dubbed “Alhambra” by one of the audience tapers of the era, was a brief but exquisite instrumental rendition of the portion of the Terrapin suite that appeared on the album as “At a Siding.” Without the lyrics and dominated by some lovely slide guitar from Garcia, this brief interlude was one of the high points of the second set. In their frequently contrary fashion, the band for some reason elected to never play this section again. I’m just guessing, but it may have been a dynamic consideration – to end the tune with a bang (as they did on the 3/20 encore version) rather than fading into the more intimate “At a Siding-Alhambra” passage.
A brief drumfest ensued, and led into another show highlight. Generally the sets of “show highlights” and versions of “Not Fade Away” do not overlap, particularly in later years where it became a signal to end the second set. However, in this version, the longest of 1977 at nearly 20 minutes, the length was equaled by the quality of the playing, particularly from Mr. Garcia. As the drum duel ended, the two drummers shifted into the Bo Diddley beat for awhile before the rest of the band chimed in. With Phil playing driving things with some aggressive octaves, the rest of the band noodled somewhat placidly in E for the first six minutes or so before breaking into the two verses. With the vocals out of the way, Jerry really got down to business around the 9 minute mark, soloing first with some kind of overdrive for a couple of minutes and then dropping back around 10:30 while the drummers laid down some off-beat thumps and then switching to some other distortion effect for some more furious soloing around the 12 minute mark, playing behind and in front of the beat, with the drummers, Phil and Keith all in synch. Power chord and percussion pandemonium ensues around 14 minutes before everyone falls back into the Bo Diddley beat for the long, mellow vocal denouement.
After the vocals, the volume dropped way down, and the band moved stealthily into the opening bars of a gorgeous rendition of “St. Stephen.” At the band’s previous gig in Santa Barbara, they broke with recent tradition by playing the original arrangement of the St. Stephen bridge, but the revised, waltz time version was back for the Winterland shows. As the final line of “Stephen” crashed to a close, the drummers were starting back into a “NFA” reprise, but Weir took command, instead driving the train straight into “Around and Around,” a tune which was, all too often, relatively rote in its delivery. In this case, though, the energy of the rest of the set carried over into what was arguably one of the most energetic versions of this tune on record. Garcia was MVP again, starting with some Chuck Berry inspired licks between verses, and then stretching out further on both sides of the modulation preceding the the final verse and then driving Keith and Phil to a power chord embellished frenzy before and during the vocal passage, ending the tune with an extended orgasmic instrumental release.
For the sole encore, the band brought things back down to earth with a soulful version of “Uncle John’s Band,” which nonetheless contained some energetic instrumental thrashing prior to the acapella bridge. A fine way to wrap up what remains what I consider one I consider one of the best Dead shows I ever attended.
The remaining two nights of the March run were fine, and I know at least one of my colleagues actually prefers the next night, which included a long first set medley of “Terrapin”>Playing in the Band”>”Samson and Delilah”>Playing in the Band” and it is hard to beat the perfiously mentioned run-closing “Terrapin” encore on Sunday. This was a weekend full of repeats. Besides “Terrapin” and “Estimated” being played all three nights, “St. Stephen,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Peggy-O,” “Cassidy,” “Promised Land,” “Around and Around,” and “Samson and Delilah” were each played twice, and “Scarlet” returned to end the first set on Sunday without being paired with “Fire on the Mountain.” The level of musicianship and audience engagement was consistently strong all three nights, so you really can’t go wrong with any of the three shows, which set the tone for the remainder of the remarkable year that followed.