Swing Auditorium

The Dead's first full show of 1977 took place at Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California on February 26. The band hadn't played a show in nearly two months -- since New Year's Eve 1976/1977. So you could reasonably expect them to sound a little rusty on this night. But this is certainly not a show to be overlooked. Aside from a little roughness around the edges, the first show of the year proved to be a great harbinger for things to come.

The night opened with quite the declaration of confidence: the first-ever version of "Terrapin Station." It's a well-played version, although it's a little less precise than the truly great versions that would come later. The buildup to the "Inspiration moves me brightly" lyric does not contain the sense of anticipation and power that would come later and the concluding jam seems to end abruptly, but it's nonetheless a nice version for a debut.

Solid, if unspectacular, versions of "New Minglewood Blues" and "They Love Each Other" follow. The former would become quite a dependable first set barn-burner in 1977. The latter is a tune that I far prefer in its original up-tempo version. The fact that the band slowed it and "Friend of the Devil" down to much sleepier tempos after the 1975 hiatus has always suggested to me that certain members of the band were not up to the challenges that may have been presented by performing the up-tempo versions. Just rank speculation on my part, but it's well-known that Jerry's heroin addiction was worsening during this era, and this had to have had an effect on the music.

Another debut follows -- the first-ever "Estimated Prophet," a signature tune for the year. This is a strong, concise version which is heavy on some nice synth work from Keith. This performance makes you wish he had turned to the synth (rather than his favored piano) more often. At approximately seven minutes long, this version features considerably less jamming than later versions would, but hey, it's a debut, so I'm not complaining.

This was followed by a top notch "Sugaree," which unfolds with great Jerry soloing between the verses. Short, solid versions of "Mama Tried" and "Deal" were next, with the latter featuring some particularly fiery playing by Garcia.

The highlight of the first set is undoubtedly the set-closing "Playing in the Band" --> "The Wheel" --> "Playing in the Band" jam. Here the band abandoned whatever sense of restraint had been hovering over them for the rest of the first set and tackled this jam with abandon. The "Playin'" jam is spacey from the outset in a way that is reminiscent of classic '73 and '74 versions, and the slow jam into "The Wheel" is a beauty. "The Wheel" itself is very well-played. This is a great tune that often suffers from being played a little too slow, but this one is almost perfectly paced, and it features some nice ensemble singing. The jam out of "The Wheel" is wonderfully trippy and dissolves back into a charging "Playin'" reprise that closes the set in fine fashion.

The second set starts off with a rousing version of "Samson & Delilah" that showcases how well Bobby's, Jerry's and Donna's voices could work together on a good night. This version also features some nice jangly rhythm guitar work from Bobby that is a great counterpoint to Jerry's sharp leads. Whatever momentum had been generated is unfortunately squandered by the "Tennessee Jed" that comes next. It's not that it's played badly, it's just that, as a somewhat slight composition, it's the sort of tune that I'd prefer to hear in the first set.

[An aside: This is the era in which the dichotomy between first set and second set songs became more pronounced, with the first set featuring more concise versions of simpler, less open-ended songs. The opening set was more or less a warm-up for the second set, which typically featured more intense jamming -- and starting later in 1977, an extended drums segment in the middle of the second set. In 1978, the band introduced the extended space jam following drums, and from then until Garcia's death in 1995, virtually every setlist included "Drums --> Space" in the middle of the second set. Some Heads looked forward to this portion of the show as an opportunity for the band to test the outer limits of sound, while others were bored, confused, or pleased to have a built-in restroom break. I tend to lean toward the bored category, but I do occasionally find a Drums --> Space segment compelling].

The band begins to regain its footing with a version of "The Music Never Stopped" that's a little ragged, but that nonetheless features some hot licks from Jerry and some strong piano work from Keith during the closing jam. "Help on the Way" is a tune that is generally greeted with considerable enthusiasm by Deadheads as it usually signals the beginning of the much-beloved "Help --> Slip --> Frank" trio. But the versions of "Help on the Way" and "Slipknot!" from this night are somewhat timid and underwhelming. "Franklin's Tower" starts off the same way, and features several botched verses from Jerry, but thankfully it picks up considerable fire by the end.

I'm a sucker for the Dead's covers of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land," and the rollicking version that follows "Franklin's" doesn't disappoint, as it features typically great guitar runs and piano work. The hands-down highlight of the second set has to be the lively "Eyes of the World" that comes next. This is a mammoth "Eyes," with some intense jamming that eventually gives way to a Phil Lesh bass solo of sorts (he's accompanied by the drummers so I guess it's not really a solo). Before long, the all-too-familiar strains of "Dancing in the Streets" start up. Although the disco arrangement is the same as the embarrassing Terrapin Station album version, the excellent three to four minute wah-wah jam in the middle of the tune illustrates why this was a such welcome addition to setlists during the late seventies. Another Chuck Berry cover closes out the second set: "Around and Around." I'm not wild about this tune, but it's an energetic, well-played version that features some over-the-top Bobby vocals. "U.S. Blues" is always appreciated in the encore slot, and the fine version that concludes this show must have sent those in attendance out the doors with smiles on their faces.

In short, I definitely recommend checking this show out. Although there are spots where you can sense the band is regaining its footing after a couple months off, these are fewer and farther between than you might expect. Generally speaking, the band sounds energetic and the excellent setlist doesn't have many holes. In particular, be sure to check out the first-ever “Terrapin,” the "Playing --> Wheel --> Playing" jam that closes the first set and the outstanding "Eyes of the World" from the second set.

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