Another summer is here. This weekend, I am waiting out a July heat wave. And waiting to see if the Cubs can salvage something out of the post-All Star break phase of the baseball season after their miserable start. (Based on yesterdays game, its not looking like the odds are too good.) (The last sentence was true the day I wrote the first draft of this column, became less true the day I revised it and became resoundingly true again when I sent in the final version.)
In addition to that, the because its there temptations of the Internet have pushed me into another music collection project. This one involves the Deads spring 77 tour. Last fall I did something similar with Phish fall 97, but although their jams that tour often started from the same premise (how much can you do with a dominant seven chord and a 4/4 drumbeat?), they seemed to take an impish pride in sticking them into the most unlikely songs.
The Deads 77 shows, by comparison, were predictable. Great, but predictable. It sounded as if all seven members had agreed (for once) to become a spectacular mainstream band rather than an avant garde entity. Vocal harmonies were tighter, instruments were in tune, Dark Star was gone.
My first batch of Dead tapes (acquired in 1993) included 5/13/77 II, a weird copy which started by cutting into the middle of a jam from the Fire On The Mountain which finished set one, and I will never forget how young and fresh they sounded compared to the creaky 90s versions of the song I had heard on the Dead Hour before that. A short time later, I got Buffalo, and the perhaps-overhyped Cornell. The last side of Cornell (with Not Fade Away and Morning Dew) is very strong Dead indeed, but Buffalo became the tape I would cite as the one where it all came together, although a few older ones (2/13/70, 5/19/74) competed.
Fast forward a decade from those early collecting days, though, and my perspective is a bit different. Back in the early 90s only about one third of the 77 tour was around in soundboard form, but now almost all of it circulates. And I am reminded of an Owsley quote I read back in my early collecting days, to the effect that the Dead always said the same thing, with the only difference being in how well they said it.
After a few years following the Cubs, I can understand the oft-touted Dead/baseball analogy more than I used to, and it applies to 77. A new tour is like a new season some old habits disappear, some stay, some new ones develop. Like the rookie pitcher who abruptly finds himself in the major league rotation, Estimated Prophet starts as a first set song, gets promoted to become an isolated second-set song, then starts getting linked with other songs in Buffalo halfway through the tour. The Scarlet/Fire medley becomes a commonplace, and at a few early 77 shows it seems like you can hear the audiences surprise at encountering the new extension to Scarlet. Help/Slip/Franklins gets a few excellent performances, but starts to fade nonetheless, and will be gone for five years after the fall tour.
Beyond that, listening to multiple spring 77 shows is often an exercise in comparing multiple iterations of the same idea. For instance, the Buffalo Music Never Stopped has been on my list of peak Dead moments since I heard it, so one thing to do with those other 77 recordings is to try to find a better version. It seems like each other one has Garcia coming close to the same peak but putting the song to rest before reaching it. (Check the Dicks Picks III version for an example.) May 18 in Atlanta is the closest runner-up Ive encountered so far, but doesnt quite get there despite Garcia using some of the same licks. The quest for the Music that out-Buffaloes Buffalo continues.
A similar case is Sugaree. For whatever reason, the trend of explosive versions of this song started in 77. From May 5 onward, it seems like every version has inter-verse jams which are almost hilarious in how far their energy is out of proportion to the song about the guy not wanting to be associated with the doomed heroine. Putting on each new one leads to a drama of expectations. Will Garcias line-building come together? Will the drummers add an extra beat, and can the band resolve onto the same one afterwards? Will Phil and Keith nail the punctuation to end each instrumental section when Garcia comes back for the verse? The perfect version may still be waiting, as there are a few left to hear, such as May 19 and May 28.
There are a few truly unique moments in spring 77, especially the rare detour into space. (This occurs at length on the first night of the tour in Playing In The Band, and for a short spell on May 25 during The Other One.) Otherwise, getting more shows has made the few I used to have seem a bit less exciting but has put them into perspective as single nights, more links in a chain. Its a valuable life lesson.