April 23 - Springfield Civic Arena

Our co-contributor hooked me up with 3/18 and 3/19, so reviews of those two nights will be forthcoming, followed by 4/30 as suggested by Bob. (I assme you meant 4/30, and not 4/3, right Bob? My DeadBase doesn't list a show for 4/3). But first I'll tackle 4/23 because it's a show I've been listening to for about a month now, and as great as it is, I'm ready to get it off my Rio Karma to make room for something else. (It's ridiculous that I feel so constrained by a 20 GB music player, but I do).

This show from Springfield, Mass. kicks off nicely with an excellent version of "Sugaree" that makes you wonder why the band didn't open shows more often with this tune. Generally speaking, it's a song that starts slowly (like the band itself many nights), but a good version allows the band an opportunity to tear it up a little bit (or sometimes a lot). And yes, this is a good version. It's far more polished than the performance from a month earlier (3/18) at Winterland Arena, although the Winterland version boasts more exciting and unusual soloing by Jerry. They're both awesome versions of a classic Dead song -- have your self a good time and listen to them both back-to-back and try to choose your favorite of the two. I think the version you choose probably says something about your personality -- we should have one of our interns do some research on that.

A charging, uptempo "Cassidy" follows. It's a short, no nonsense version, but it's very well-played and the Betty Board (with great stereo separation) allows you to hear each band member playing in perfect synch with one another. Bobby and Donna are in good form vocally on this one. The "Loser" that follows is excellent and features a wonderfully sharp and emotive solo from Jerry after the verses and before the final chorus. A typically firey '77 version of "New Minglewood Blues" is next, and four songs into this show, and it's official: we're off to a pretty kick-ass start. This could be a special night....

"Ramble On Rose" is next, and though it's well-played, it's a bit of a momentum-drain after the excellent start. Things pick up a bit with a nice and very up-tempo version of "Me and My Uncle" that features excellent guitar work from both Bobby and Jerry as well as a delightfully bouncy bass line from Phil. Keith sounds great on piano too -- hell, this is about as good as this little cowboy tune can sound.

Next up is "Row Jimmy." I'm just not a "Row Jimmy" fan, but suffice to say that if all versions were this lively and well-played I might change my mind about the tune. That being said, I'd rather hear just about any other first-set Jerry tune in this spot. A really nice "All Over Now" picks up the pace a bit, and again Phil treats us to a very nice bass line laid underneath Garcia's sharp lead. Those of us who are Bobby connoisseurs have got to love Bobby's vocal delivery on this one: "She used to run around....with every man in TOWN!" and "Baby used to stay out...all night LONG!" Good stuff if you can allow yourself to get into such theatrics. (It's not hard, just lighten up a bit).

Had this excellent set ended with "All Over Now," it would certainly merit your attention, and in fact would stand as an outstanding example of how great the Dead sounded in 1977. But the first eight songs of this show were merely a set-up to what comes next. Namely, the third-ever pairing of "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain." Although the combo is still in its infancy here, it's simply one of the best versions I've heard, from any year. The transition jam isn't particularly notable, but these are simply awesome versions of both songs. "Scarlet" busts out of the gate at full speed and features some unusually passionate Jerry vocals. Listen to him growl the "ain't nothing wrong with the way she moves" line at 2:24. The bouncy group playing on this version is simply fantastic, and even discounting the "Fire" that would follow, this is a top notch "Scarlet" that features the band playing with reckless (but not too reckless) abandon. The transition to "Fire" is rudimentary -- the band just eases into it. Phil's "Fire" baseline and Bobby's rhythmn part both start well before Jerry's wah-wah lead. There are some vocal flubs by Garcia, but he more than makes up for it later in the tune, believe me. The jam after the first verse is excellent and has Jerry taking some cutting solos over very nice ryhtmn work from Bobby. But the song really kicks into high gear toward (what seems like) the end. The "Fire....fire on the mountain" refrain that follows the last verse is absolutely hypnotic, and the unpredictible closing jam is jaw-droppingly good and thankfully longer than usual. This is a "Fire" that refuses to go quietly into that good night. Thus a great first set is elevated even higher by an incredible set closer. It's mammoth versions like this that caused the band to switch "Scarlet -> Fire" to its rightful spot as a second set anchor.

Could the second set live up to the lofty standards set by the excellent opening set? Perhaps not quite, but there are certainly highlights aplenty in the second set too. Things start off pretty well with solid but unspectacular versions of "Estimated Prophet" and "Bertha." A short but well-played version of "The Music Never Stopped" is a little less than satisfying, as it simply leaves you wanting more. The low point of the night may be the "Help On the Way" that follows. Musically it's not bad, but Jerry seems to botch as many of the lyrics as he gets right, making for a painful listen. Unfortunately "Slipknot!" is not all that revelatory either, but thankfully there are no words for Jerry to worry about. It's a slightly listless version, and it doesn't really set the stage particularly well for the classic transition into "Franklin's Tower." But all is forgotton over the course of this intense, ten-minute version of "Franklin's."

It starts innocuously, with the familiar mellow groove reaching out gamely, but not yet grabbing hold. This version features Keith's synthesizer counter-balancing Jerry's lead very nicely. Things start to get a little hot around the three minute mark during a nice jam between the second and third verses. But it's the jam following the third verse, after the "if you get confused, listen to the music play" line that really kicks things into high gear. Listen to the music play indeed -- and listen to it loud if you can. Just at what seems like the perfect moment, the Betty Board that I have switches to a an audience recording, presumably due to a gap in the soundboard recording. It's an absolute rush to hear this snippet of the audience recording, as it features the crowd responding to the band's intense playing with wild cries of delight. Listen to this "Franklin's" for yourself, it's a gem...perhaps one of the best ever.

"Franklin's" gives way to a version of "Around and Around" that elevates this little Chuck Berry tune to about the highest heights it can achieve. It's one of those firey versions in which the band suddenly ups the tempo about four minutes in and never looks back. Just as it seems that perhaps the band is about to close the set, it performs a quick segue into "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad." This is a tune that was so consistently well-played throughout the Dead's long career that it's always nice to see it pop up in a setlist. This is especially true in 1977, a year in which the song was played only seven times. This is a typically great version, with the band firing on all cylinders. "Not Fade Away" follows, and unlike "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," this is a song that tended to vary widely in terms of performace quality. At its most supercharged, it felt like the Dead's very own theme song (albeit written by Buddy Holly), and was marked by communal sing-alongs and meandering but penetrating Garcia solos. At its most underwhleming however, the song was an overlong bore, marked by meandering and tedious solos by Garcia. The version played this night belongs somewhere between these two extremes. Well better than average, but not exactly a classic. But most importantly it doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a nice conclusion to a very good second set that contains some must-hear moments. An encore of "One More Saturday" night ends the night, and it's a racous, energetic version that caps off a great show.

In many ways this is the prototypical '77 show, feauring intense, driving group jamming that ups the ante in terms of energy level, but that features very little exploratory jamming. The playing is so good in the best spots that such exploratory jamming is not missed by my ears. Despite some off moments, I suspect that this one will merit discussion as one of the tops shows of the year whenever we conclude this ambitious project. I recommend checking out the whole show, and in particular, the versions of "Sugaree," "Scarlet-> Fire," "Franklin's Tower," "Around & Around" and "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad."