Murph's Introduction

Before we dive in to sample and critique a little of the '77 vintage, I'll offer some of my thoughts on what makes the year special, as well as what its detractors cite when they claim it's vastly overrated.

First, the good.... tight playing and shimmering vocals.

After taking a near-complete rest from touring in 1975, the band returned in 1976 and spent most of the year playing competent but somewhat uninspiring shows. They obviously had some significant rust to shake off, and the task was complicated by a personnel addition: in '76 Mickey Hart rejoined Bill Kreutzmann back behind the drum kit(s). If '76 was a band regaining its footing as an ensemble, by 1977 they were cooking with gas. The Dead's playing in 1977 was remarkably tight and energetic, and seemed to grow more muscular as the year progressed.

And not to be dismissed in evaluations of the keys to the '77 sound are the band's vocals. This is an area that is something of an Achilles heel for the band's recorded history, as great playing is often marred by singing that is off-key or otherwise ragged. But in '77, these problems are thankfully not in evidence. Donna Jean's monitors must have been working superbly in '77, as her vocals are almost always on key. (One only need listen to a few '78 shows to hear how awful she can sound when she's not in tune). Bobby's singing is as rich and enthusiastic as ever, and he hadn't quite devolved into the parody of himself that he would become in the mid-80's and beyond with his idiosyncratic phrasing. And Jerry's vocals never sounded better. He sounds commanding and wise beyond his years.

In short, the band was, in many ways, hitting on all strides in 1977. They were playing with seemingly telepathic precision and with a remarkable consistency that they would never again sustain for an entire year. There would certainly be runs of brilliance in later years ('79, '85, '89-'90 in particular), but not like '77.

The bad.... inside the box jamming and predictable setlists.

As great as the playing was in '77, the jamming rarely exhibited the type of adventurousness that characterized their playing during their previous peaks in '69-70, and '73-'74. There are great jams in '77 to be sure, but they generally are jams that find the band staying within the confines of song structure and ratcheting up the intensity with Jerry's solos fanning the flames. The addition of Mickey to the lineup after six years away surely had something to do with this. In his wonderful book, Dead to the Core, which is devoted to critiques of live Dead, Eric Wybenga observes that the Dead with Hart back in the lineup wasn't able to "turn corners as quickly" as in their jazzy '73-'74 heyday. That certainly seems to be the case. Whatever the reasons, there is very little in the way of spacey, exploratory excursions. As a result, the band's sound was more predictable than in years past. And speaking of predictable -- the setlists of 1977 are far less varied than at any other time in their history. The band didn't actually play Estimated Prophet and Samson & Delilah at every show in 1977, it only seems that way. They played 60 shows that year, Estimated was played 51 times, and Samson was played 41. This was not a great year for variety in Bobby's song selection, as Minglewood Blues (35 times) and Good Lovin' (30) were also played to death. He clearly had hit something of a songwriting drought, as Estimated Prophet was his only original contribution to the Terrapin Station album.

As for that album, I must say I disagree with the view offered by Bob, namely that it represents something of a high point for the band's studio efforts. While it does contain three songs (Estimated, Terrapin and Samson & Delilah) that would become warhorses of the band's live repertoire, the album as a whole is characterized by the type of slick overproduction that marred each of their studio albums (to varying degrees) following 1973's underrated Wake of the Flood. The title track earned a spot as showstopper over the years in its live incarnation, and deservedly so. On the album, it's transformed into a ridiculous multi-part suite that is so over-the-top with its heavy-handed orchestral and choral parts that it wouldn't sound out of place in an Andrew Llloyd Webber musical (think Starlight Express). Obviously it's not a show of strength that the album is so slight. It contains only four original compositions (including Donna's "Sunrise") and a grand total of six tracks which clock in at a mere 35 minutes. Among the covers is a very unfortunate disco version of the Motown classic "Dancing in the Streets." This tune was actually a vehicle for some wonderfully funky jamming onstage, but the studio cut is downright embarrassing. The album versions of Estimated, Samson & Delilah and the Lesh-penned but Weir-sung rocker Passenger fare better, but considering how well the band was playing onstage at the time, the album has to be considered a big disappointment.

All that being said, clearly the Grateful Dead had something special going on in 1977, as no performing year provokes stronger feelings. Hopefully this blog will afford us an opportunity to take a closer look and decide for ourselves whether it's worthy of the hype or perhaps a bit overrated.

Up next.... a look at the first show of the year: February 26, Swing Auditorium, San Bernadino, CA.

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