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Published: 2007/01/21
by Randy Ray

Live at the Cow Palace: New Year’s Eve 1976 – the Grateful Dead

Rhino 8122748162

Originally broadcast on legendary Bay Area progressive radio station KSAN-FM, the Grateful Dead played their first New Year’s Eve gig in four years in 1976. It was also the first of an epic three-year NYE series, concluding with the 1978 Winterland closing gig andshortly, thereafterthe Godchaux era. Earlier that year, the Dead had formally returned from a much-needed hiatusunbelievably their only long period of inactivity for the next 19 yearsand were attempting to reassimilate percussionist Mickey Hart into the mix. Consequently, America’s bicentennial year was a period of transition for the band, in what would become a trademark over the next two decades as strong performance years would be followed by one or two years of retrenchment.

But this is New Year’s 1976 and the performance and HDCD quality of the recordings are timeless, state of the art, and among the finest the Dead ever performedholiday run or otherwise. Throw out your old FM broadcast tapes and allow your ears to be emasculated once again by the glorious pre-Persian Garcia-led Dead. Transition year or not, the band was already showing signs of their towering Borg-like superalien telepathy as improvisatory magic tore into the fabric of audio chaos with hairpin precision and tight, interlocking control. The show begins with a cowboy stud muffin strut through “The Promised Land." “Bertha” and “Mama Tried” race through a standard fire-up-the-bong first set, and cascade into a mammoth 20-minute plus “Playing in the Band,” which leaps into a very strange wormhole, floats along in the netherworld, and leaps into a charging rhythm that neatly folds right back into itself, closing the song and set.

The second and closing setno three sets for New Year’s Eve, just yetbegins with Bill Graham’s favorite Dead tune and a holiday staple, “Sugar Magnolia,” before the majestic arc of a classic “Eyes of the World” immediately lifts one back into deep outer space. A “Here Comes Sunshine” tease proceeds a mid-tempo “Samson and Delilah” and the set reaches a third major peak with a “Help on the Way >Slipknot! > Not Fade Away > Morning Dew (!!)” finale that is as dynamic within headphones as it sounds on paper. “Franklin’s Tower” was not always linked with its two kin in those days and in this particular situation the result is absolutely monumental well-paced and executed as if the crystal ball is sitting center stage and the entire band knows that 1977 will be huge.

The encores aren’t too shabby, either. An obligatory “One More Saturday Night” has the necessary high and crazy energy before the surprise post-hiatus breakout of “Uncle John’s Band > And We Bid You Goodnight” close the show with its share of fine vibes and goosebumps. The fun doesn’t end there as a bonus disc collects random, effervescent cuts from this year that almost never was as the Dead contemplated retirement and came back with an awkward bang, slash and wallop, instead. Highlights included as a bonus appropriately labeled Spirit of 76 are excellent versions of “The Music Never Stopped” and “Crazy Fingers” from Boston on June 9th, and a deliciously mouthwatering sandwich“Playing In The Band > Supplication >Playing in the Band” from Williamsburg, Virginia, on September 24th. Sofor all of the snooty Class of 1977 Deadhead fansyours truly, includedbeware: this is one collection that sits nicely on the shelf next to that legendary vintage.

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