[Author's Note: The following review will be published in Friday's edition of the Wooster Voice.]
The Grateful Dead's newest archival release, “To Terrapin: Hartford '77,” is pitted against some intimidating competition. This May 28, 1977, concert was the last from a month that many Deadheads consider the best ever, and while plenty others (this one included) would beg to differ, there's no denying that the band was delivering exceptional, career-defining performances nearly every night of the tour.
This means two things for “To Terrapin”: one, it's marvelous by default; and two, it will forever be subject to ruthless comparisons to its May '77 predecessors.
How does May 28 acquit itself on the latter score? Moderately well. It would certainly be hard to think of a better opening sequence. After rocking through a typical pairing of “Bertha” and “Good Lovin',” both of which boast a polished, sparkling sound, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia seamlessly steers the band into the ballad “Sugaree.”
With its lyrical treatment of love, loss, and regret, and its roots deep in the American folk tradition, “Sugaree” is signature Grateful Dead—and everything about this version falls into place beautifully. The song proper, especially in Garcia's aching vocal lines, is executed with a profound expressiveness, but the three instrumental breaks between verses are where “Sugaree” reaches its most transcendent peaks. Here, in endless but purposeful melodic invention over two chords, the band conjures up a love story more vivid, dynamic, and intense than could ever be put into words, mining every corner of the song for its emotional truth. I dare you not to be moved. The track total runs nineteen minutes, and not one is wasted. Even in a month studded with epic takes, this “Sugaree” is the rival of any.
After “Sugaree,” however, the first set loses considerable momentum. The rhythmic evenness of 1977 Dead begins to drag, and while Garcia takes a truly arresting solo in “Brown-Eyed Women,” backed by some adroit fills from pianist Keith Godchaux, the latter half of the set still feels somewhat underwhelming.
But this band is nothing if not able to bounce back, and they bounce back with a vengeance after intermission. The thick, dark reggae of “Estimated Prophet,” which opens a seventy-minute thread of uninterrupted music, is warped into a fiery, chromatic jam led by Garcia. They then take a jubilant stroll through “Playing in the Band” before that song dissolves like a momentary illusion into fretful, modal jazz spiked with bizarre electronic textures.
The second really exemplary moment of the show comes in the form of “Terrapin Station,” their latest and most idiosyncratic extended composition (and the namesake for this release). The lilting, ambiguous first section is executed perfectly, and not just by Garcia, but by the entire band, all of whom frame the verses with clarity and grace. The triumphant second part of the suite, however, is breathtaking. When Garcia sings, “Inspiration! move me brightly,” you can hear him basking in it. The song doesn't let up from there, but rather charges through its majestic, radiant conclusion.
It's hard to find fault with much of “To Terrapin.” All of the songs are fundamentally played well, and “Sugaree” and “Terrapin Station” are maddeningly good. But in the company of its May contemporaries, the 28th was perhaps only an average night, marred by lackluster passages in the first set. “To Terrapin” is therefore highly recommended, but even greater shows, both bootlegs and official releases, await those interested in exploring the era more thoroughly.