[Author's Note: This is the obsessive's breakdown of May 28, 1977. For everyone else, the more concise and polished review is published below.]
To Terrapin: Hartford '77
Bertha. Starts with a little less wild exuberance than in the early 70s, probably my favorite overall period for the song. Jerry's singing is likewise a little more low-key, but nonetheless expressive. The Godchauxs are doing a fine job: Donna's harmonies add some lovely color, and Keith's rather rhythmic fills, while hardly virtuosic, complement the easygoing '77 vibe. Jerry's solo is, again, considerably less frenzied than it would have been only a few years earlier, but it's both lyrical and precise. It's Keith in the background, actually, who really pushes the ROCK out of the song in the latter stages of the instrumental, and it's a welcome development. (He actually was still playing quite well in the spring of '77; that would change somewhat in the fall.) It's really quite a fine version by the end. >
Good Lovin'. Usual key maneuvering to get to the C riff. (Gotta love the '77 rhythm section; Mickey and Bill were such a part of that beautiful feel.) (MIX: Very nice, crisp with good instrument separation, but I wouldn't be complaining if Phil were even higher—there's no such thing as too much Phil.) This version is great not only in execution but VIBE, and I think that's a huge part of the '77 appeal (which I totally get, even though I might prefer the pre-hiatus years). Bobby's vocal freak-out at the end nicely underscored by some bass thumps. They draw out that last C chord for all it's worth until Jerry announces >
Sugaree. Here we go. Very little is better than a May '77 Sugaree. First instrumental: Jerry starts those slow, spiraling notes, those glistening strands of dewy melodic invention, and everyone else bears out the counterpoint so beautifully. This is perhaps one of the greatest representations of what this band could create with only two chords. I dare you not to be moved. The feeling that drips from every line here and lots of Sugarees from this era is really just one of the best things they ever tapped into. Builds in momentum, through double-time notes and chord riffing and Phil ascents... but this is really music beyond words. Bobby's brighter guitar color meshes with Jerry's darker, fluid one so perfectly. Second instrumental: Keith starts us off. Just graceful triplet patterns, as lilting as can be. (His sense of inversions/part writing is excellent, for those of you who pay attention to that kind of thing.) His arpeggiations fuse seamlessly with Jerry's. Just once, for a brief period, neither Keith nor Jerry seizes the inventive line, and it flags slightly, but Jerry revives it quickly, building the second instrumental to its shredding peak (this isn't dark shredding, by the way—it's just an expression of incredible sentiment). Jerry gives it all to the singing, too, and his voice is perhaps my favorite, if I may make a subjective choice. Third instrumental: very placid opening after storm of past two instrumentals. Jerry explores a lot of his lower register at first; the effect is suitably mournful, and when he moves up higher, it's like crying. This might be the most rhythmically varied of the three instrumental segments, though it never rises to the auspiciously BIG peaks of the other jams (its intensity is in its focus and restraint). In the last verse/chorus of the song, it becomes apparent again just how expressive Jerry's voice is—he's really acting the song. Thus ends a HELL of a half-hour opening segment. Wow.
(Best-ever Sugaree? Irrelevant. There are some others from the surrounding weeks that I like as much or more, but that's just a matter of personal preference.)
Jack Straw. Ah... another typically beautiful May '77 artifact. Again, much more placid than the versions before retirement, which I tend to prefer, but there's no denying the easygoing, gently dancing merits of these '77 specimens. Jerry's guitar playing is just so good, even if the instrumentals don't get as intensely jammed out. Every phrase seems to say something. Jerry's vocal lines aren't given nearly enough feeling, which is a drawback. The second instrumental is given a much lengthier treatment, gradually stretching out to the howling beast it would become in '78 (this one's still tamer, but still has a beauty and a strength). I prefer 5/8 or 5/25 from this month, but this one's lovely nonetheless.
Row Jimmy. Keith on early-'77 organ-thing, which has a weak sound. It's a drawback, given what his contributions were on, say, a Fender Rhodes in '74. As beautiful as this song is, it doesn't do enough to captivate with every listen, though there are some really remarkable versions out there. I'm not feeling this one. It's also possible the '77 tempos are starting to drag to these ears. Maybe this one will open up to me more on subsequent hearings, but right now 5/8 and 5/21 are my favorite Jimmys of the month.
Minglewood. This song could have some definite kick to it during this period (actually, fuck what most people say—I can think of a lot of, say, mid-80s versions with lots of kick too—dig October '83!). But this is a crisp version that's rounded out by Phil thumps and there's no slide guitar that would tend to dominate starting '78. I wish Keith were higher on the mix here (he tends to get buried in rockers this year)—he takes a solo, but it's more rhythmic playing that the melodic invention he would have put into it in '76. Jerry's playing is typically excellent, but it's not going to blow your mind if you're a Deadhead with a steady intake of Minglewoods (which I am). Bobby's playing actually fans the drama pretty significantly at the end of the last instrumental.
Candyman. Keith back on organ for another Jerry ballad. Bobby throws in some nice shimmering fills when needed. Three-part harmonies in chorus nicely executed. It's fascinating how in-transition Jerry's voice sounds in '77—he's a few years past his youthful singing, and the next few years would really scratch his voice up into its famous latter-day tone. Here he's in a nether-zone, singing with less exuberance, an older sensitivity. His wah-wah solo is a thing of delicate beauty, and a good example of the group (the support) backing Jerry (the focus) in '77, rather than the more collective jamming of '73-'74.
Passenger. Quintessential late '70s howler, and always a good place to hear some Phil thumps, not to mention Keith's funkier contributions (which sound a bit like squelching bugs, and it's awesome) or the thrill of some of Jerry's slide lines. Donna really growls (not howls!) on "raging beast." A fine version, but nothing unusual. Forgive the relentless comparisons, but in May '77 it's got to be done: I prefer 5/19.
Brown-Eyed. Another one I definitely look forward to this month. Keith back on piano distinguishes himself neatly paralleling Jerry's vocal lines. Donna's harmonies are much better than Phil's were, let it be said. WHOA! Jerry's first solo really gets off to a surprising and thrilling start! You'll just have to hear it. Damn... this is a version that lives up to some very high expectations! Keith is really playing about as well as he ever did this year, too, and that's still quite good. In comparison to early versions, "tumbledown shack" bridge doesn't get a lot of punch, but the solo gets SO MUCH that it would be a petty complaint. The remainder of the song is just typically great, but this has already been pushed into first-class territory. Up there with 5/8 and /9.
Promised Land. This rocker is bursting with typical '77 fatness (pre-retirement Chuck Berry numbers were handled differently). Keith's solo is very nice, if rhythmically even, but that's consistent with the general tendencies here. Jerry doesn't handle the harmonies on the last verse as well as I might wish, but they leave a good space of time after to rock out—and they do. Highly enjoyable way to end a set.
Set One Summary: Total time 76:37. The opening sequence is phenomenal, and the Sugaree is the rival of any, worthy of every bit of praise that's been heaped on it. The rest of the set, apart from a gem of a BEW, is comparatively lackluster, which is to say it's well-played to a fault but low on energy. I'd take most first sets from April through June '77 over this one, but it's still a 7.5 or so.
Samson. This is definitely a song that was frequently stellar this tour. Introduction sounds very fine, with Keith making his presence known. (The official releases tend to be mixed in his favor more than the bootlegs.) He continues to distinguish himself with inventive harmonies backing Bobby. Jerry begins his solo on something of a weak beat, but his playing is more than up to upping the ante as he goes. His punctuation to Bobby's vocal ferocity is also noteworthy, though Keith is the best instrumentalist throughout the verses. Jerry's second solo is even stronger, a barnstormer—some really inventive lines really shake off all expectations. An excellent Samson worthy even of its formidable '77 peers.
Tennessee Jed. This tune I generally think lost a lot of sparkle in its transformation to '77 rhythmic evenness. The wash of drums, slower plodding tempo, and relative tameness of Keith's playing doesn't do it any favors. Sure enough, there's not a lot here to distinguish it from countless other Jeds. (Verses will pass and just not spark that much comment, honestly.) Keith starts picking up some spark just in time for the closing instrumental. Bobby and Phil's complementing Jerry is very interesting to listen to here, but Keith and even Jerry are just too rhythmically even to stand out consistently. A pity, because it climaxes very nicely. Still, nothing like a really good pre-retirement or even '76 Jed.
Estimated. Ah! That glorious bass thud, the wah-wah... could a Deadhead not love the introduction to Estimated? Not quite as crisp as some—this is a gooier beast, for better or worse. It shows its infancy at a few moments—namely, there just aren't enough fills in the right places, and the vocal harmonies aren't always 100% sharp. Jerry, however, is clearly practiced with the song and nails the often difficult bridge into the G maj. jam, which itself is FAR shorter than it would become or than one would like. But we get a good length of time to move out of Estimated, at least. The jam out is largely dominated by Jerry—it's not as rich as versions to come where Brent would help push that envelope. Jerry's also playing with fewer accidentals than he would work in over the next few years, so this take remains rooted to the bass framework more than some. The last couple minutes break from any symptoms of blandness. Bobby's really adding a lot of nice melodic counterpoint, and Keith's at least a big part of the funky texture. Phil's holding down the basic pattern more than anything else, which is probably important in a song as slippery as this. >
Playing. Keith's synth-organ tone is a little unusual to these ears. Bobby and Donna blend well, and Jerry's playing is very crisp. The opening is just as jubilant as one would want to the ending reprise coming out of the darkest jam to be. Playing still takes the immediate drop into D minor for the jam that was so striking of earlier versions and would be forestalled in the years to come. Indeed, multilayered rhythmic characteristics aside, this Playing hasn't entirely lost its pre-retirement vibe. It is, of course, much less Keith-driven (though he's toying with some really interesting and bizarre electronic textures). This version has a lot of really excellent jamming, however—it's likely about as good as Playing got in '77, which is still a decently high standard, even if we're not talking '72-'74. For the electronic weirdness, this is actually one of the strangest versions I've heard (though the freak-outs like 12/2/73 or 5/21/74 are another matter entirely). This last few minutes occasionally leave the Dorian mode for increased dissonance. Likely the Dead know they're not doing a standalone version. >
Terrapin. Very smooth and interesting transition. This is the second release named after a Terrapin as the centerpiece of the second set. 3/15/90 Terrapin is wonderful, so we'll see if this one lives up to that precedent. This song works so well in the year of its debut because it fits this incarnation of the band so impeccably: the way Keith and Phil and Bobby frame the verses show they're really paying attention and enjoying their latest and perhaps most idiosyncratic extended composition. (In that respect, one can see why it was this song Phish dug up to pay homage to Jerry in August '98.) Lady With A Fan altogether is executed PERFECTLY, really everything one could ask for. Let's see how Part II goes off.... Keith plays some really sparkling arpeggios in the transition (he's really wonderful throughout this track). Beautiful dive into "Inspiration!" (Move me brightly...!) I just have to turn up the volume here... this is so beautiful. This is one of the best Terrapins I've heard, without a doubt (I see where they got the title now). There's a flub or two, but they just keep on, and it's wondrous. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Keith is playing this song just about as well as his successor ever did (and in his own idiomatic Keith style). Phil's all over this, too. Everyone is. This is just glorious... I can't use enough superlatives. They dive back into the Playing jam, rather thrillingly, too, giving us a beautiful thirty seconds of that before >
Drums. They strike up the NFA rhythm from the beginning of the duet. You can even hear some faint E-chord explorations off in guitar-land. (These weren't the days of leaving the stage.) >
NFA. This song could rock as noisily as anything the Dead ever played in '77, especially in the fall. I really like the days before NFA was confined to a set-closing role. The band provides considerable buildup to the considerable song for minutes on end before the vocals, consistent for the year. Vocals at 4:30. They really keep jamming at a very even level of intensity here, neither playing for dynamic, melodic, or rhythmic variations or fanning the heat as much as they would by the fall. After the second vocals, Keith plays some very cool upper-register lines over the chord changes. Jerry's doubled-octave sound is a staple of this era, and always a pleasure to hear. There's nothing radical about this NFA, but it's consistently enjoyable and engaging. Phil's bass is perhaps the most inventive component. The even E jam starts fade away in the last five minutes of the track, moving into freer explorations on the same mode (in terms of departure from a template, the most spontaneous jamming of the night). Turns toward A major in an even more spontaneous jam in the last two and a half minutes, proving the Dead still had the flexibility to pull this off in '77, if not as often as before. Its key and texture say Dark Star to me, but as we all know it's the slow approach of a Wharf Rat. (GDM could have called all that "Hartford Jam" if they'd wanted—it would have merited the title.) >
Wharf Rat. A lot of attention seems to be given to the basic sound in this version. The vocals and the way they blend are great. The instrumental placements are precise, restrained, and effective. A very pretty Wharf Rat. The jam out takes on a powerful edge by Jerry from the beginning, and Keith's chords play to a lot of effect here. Bobby's shimmering A and G chords occasionally call to mind the Cryptical end-jam. I'm sticking with the Pretty and Formally Perfect assessment here—it doesn't have quite enough whoop-ass in the right spots to match the absolute best Wharf Rats. >
Playing. Sudden drop back into D minor, at first with a slightly skewed rhythm which resembles something from Let It Grow, which was currently on sabbatical until the fall, so that's not a choice. The jamming remains cemented to The Main Ten, albeit in a very pleasant way, but it's a conclusion track, not an extension of the earlier Playing jam followed by a conclusion, a la an earlier Playing sandwich. Keith's synth sounds a little out-of-place here and at other times. We welcome the piano back with great pleasure... and the immediate return of the synth with increased displeasure! The full piano sound would make for such a more majestic conclusion, though everyone else is certainly throwing that kind of weight around, and we're getting majesty anyway. Jerry, unusually, quotes Main Ten a few times and the opening riff only once before the song closes. Virtually a segue into:
OMSN. The really fat sound serves this rock-'n'-roller in C fairly well, as it did the other rock-'n'-roller in C at the close of the other set. Other than that, things are fairly standard, in the best possible '70s way.
(Encore.) U.S. Blues. Jerry's voice is considerably weaker here than it was three years earlier when the song debuted. Less Keith and a heavier rhythm section don't play to the song's advantage either, in my book. For contemporary versions, the 6/9/77 is a step above this, too, but the instrumental break here does have some balls. Jerry brings his voice up a little more for the critical "You can call this song the United States blues!" The coda has got some fire behind it as well. Altogether better than good, but not excellent.
Set Two/Encore Summary: Total time 95:31. Better than set one! The main sequence of music, the Estimated > Playing sandwich, is exemplary: everything is well-played, the Estimated, Playing, and NFA have enough jam in them to keep things from being a recital, and the TERRAPIN is just exactly perfect, about as epic as anything the Grateful Dead ever played. This is a good set for non-Deadheads, and on par with the other classic sets of April through June. 8.5
Total time 172:08.
Overall: Deadheads like shows from 1977 (especially May). GDM likes releasing shows from 1977 (especially May). As such, any one show or release is subject to ruthless competition and held to Herculean standards. How well "To Terrapin" acquits itself is likely a matter of personal tastes. For me, it's not quite the apex. I would take Dick's Picks 29, 5/8, 5/25, and the June Winterland run over 5/28, but that's a trifling distinction. If you call yourself a Deadhead and you haven't heard this show, you need to—you'll be glad you did. If you're a casual fan, this is a great place to start exploring 1977, especially given that "To Terrapin" is being widely released. B+.