March 18 - Winterland

During the 70's, San Francisco's Winterland Arena was known as the Dead's "home" venue, and the band sounded pretty comfortable there on March 18, 1977, a show notable for the debut of "Fire on the Mountain" and the only version of "Terrpain Station" which features the "Alhambra" jam that appears on the album version. Is this a truly great show, or just one that's an interesting footnote in the band's history due to a debut and a rarity? Well, I'd say it's too uneven to be considered a truly classic show, but this performance is certainly not without its highlights.

After a forgettable opening version of "Promised Land," the band settled into fine form for a classic version of "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" that features some piercing solos by Garcia. The other major highlight of the first set is an absolutely fantastic version of "Sugaree" that shows the band playing as one twelve-armed monster. The Garcia-led jam after the first verse slowly soars to amazing heights and brings this version into "best-ever" territory all by itself. The jam after the second verse is no slouch either, featuring strong keyboard work by Keith punctuated by punchy bursts of guitar from Jerry. The jam after the final verse is a little spacier and perhaps lasts a bit too long before it concludes, but not before this version of "Sugaree" stakes its claim as the version to beat for 1977.

The first set concludes with the first-ever pairing of "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain." This is an interesting debut for the classic duo, rudimentary but powerful nontheless. The closing jam in "Fire" is particularly strong, although it can be said that this version is perhaps for "Scarlet -> Fire" connoisseurs only, as it barely hints at how well these two songs would gel later in the year, and indeed throughout the remaining eighteen years of the Dead's touring career.

The second is a pretty ho-hum affair by the lofty standards of 1977. The first five songs ("Samson & Delilah," "Brown-Eyed Women," "Good Lovin'," "Ship of Fools, and "Estimated Prophet") are well-played, but each is concise and self-contained, and lacking any real meat to sink your teeth into. The last half of the second set is top notch, however, although the highlights are not where you might expect them upon reading the setlist: "Terrapin Station" -> "Alhambra" -> Drums -> "Not Fade Away" -> "St. Stephen" -> "Around and Around." This version of Terrapin is a bit sloppy, although things pick up nicely after the "inspiration, moves me brightly" turning point in the song. I must admit that I often find this to be case for live versions of this much-beloved tune. It's tough to beat a great version of "Terrapin," no question, but it's a song that the band struggled with throughout the years, particularly at the start, when the band too-often seemed sluggish and out-of-synch. That's the case with this version to a degree. But the closing jam on this night is great, with the band having found its footing, and it's a real treat to hear them slip into the "Alhambra" jam. It's well-played, and certainly makes you wish they had played it more often. But it's short-lived and little more than an interesting novelty really, not a make or break moment in the set by any means.

The real highlights of this set are a powerful 20-minute "Not Fade Away" out of Drums and the set-closing "Around and Around." In his excellent book Dead to the Core, Eric Wybenga makes the case for this version of "Not Fade Away" as one of the best ever. It's certainly a highlight of this particular show, but one of the best ever? That's some high praise and I don't think I'd go that far. But it is nice to hear the band infuse an old warhorse like this one with a real sense of urgency. As for "Around and Around," it simply rips. Seems like '77 was a great year for this otherwise ordinary song, as these versions I'm hearing from thirty years ago really shred it up. A really nice "Uncle John's Band" finishes things off. It's a version that goes from good to great when the jam after the final verse really takes off. Great way to end a historic night at Winterland.

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