This is it, the best Grateful Dead song ever – ask anyone, it’s true! Well, maybe not everybody agrees (quibbling and trifling sometimes may appear to the true hallmarks of Deadheads the world over) but this show, recorded live at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on the 8th day of May, 1977 is widely considered be one of the band’s greatest achievements. In fact, the show was so good that 30 years later the mayor of Ithaca declared May 8th to be Grateful Dead Day (which is not too dissimilar to a mayor declaring a pizza to be awesome).
I didn’t initially intend to write a bunch about this, it’s not like any more internet ink needs to be devoted to these particular 25 minutes of bootleg Grateful Dead history (believe it or not, this legendary show has never been released commercially, this sound-board tape has been going around for decades, but this performance will not, for legal reasons ((I think?)), appear on any From the Vault or Dicks Picks collection), and besides what can I really say…
Actually… I can’t help myself, I’ve got tons to say! And besides, I’m about to turn 30, there’s no better time to affect the point of view of an effusive 19-year-old hooked to mixed metaphors – but you don’t have to take my word for it, not only are there are scholars out there proffering far more enlightened assessments than my own, you can click here to listen for yourself (make sure your iPod has some space, it is 25 minutes long, after all). As far as live Dead sets go, it’s pretty accessible – this is the fun side of the Dead, both of theses songs create a kind of vacationy atmosphere, like the ultimate Hawaiian shirt Friday – and I’m sure you’ve heard both of these songs independently; Scarlet Begonias gets more air time than Fire on the Mountain, for sure, but (at least when I was a kid listening to WHCN) classic rock DJs are occasionally kind to these songs (mainly when they can’t find their copy of Skeletons from the Closet).
An extremely celebratory Scarlet Begonias starts with a bang, and the sky turns yellow; the sun: blue. Donna Jean adds some stylized wailing into the mix after the final chorus winds down and at around five and a half minutes the transition begins. To my ears, this particular journey isn’t accomplished so much by seamlessly transporting the audience from one psychedelic shore to another via some inter-dimensional slip stream (standard practice, pretty much), but by forceful keyboard playing on the part of the late, great Keith Godchaux (despite the fact that the shows played this season are universally acknowledged as the Dead’s finest hour, Keith and Donna Jean were out of the band by 1979 – and within a matter of months after that Keith passed away in a tragic car accident). The movement has clear beginning and end points, moments so crisply delineated that it becomes quite clear that there’s a definite destination – and Keith (for one) is in a hurry to get there.
The playing is anything but subtle (while metaphorical scalpels are invoked regularly throughout the band’s long live career as transitionalists, there are just as many occasions where hatchets are pulled down from their hooks and wielded with great ferocity), Keith marches the band along (much like he motivated the latter portion of Jack Straw earlier in the evening), which lends the lead guitarist’s inquisitive playing a preoccupied tone: even as Garcia shines his mind-light into the cosmic caverns the band hurtles past, stuttering on the precipice of exotic sojourns, the anxious pounding at the piano reminds him there are places to go, people to see, and so the passages he plays drop hints of potential trips and foreshadow the mind-blowing things to come. Even Weir, consummate colorist, seems to be chomping at the bit, then the break happens; the destination is reached right about at the halfway mark.
Familiarity is restored and Phil and the drummers slide right into place and establish a rhythmic structure strong enough to sustain the explosive launches that are coming shortly – though not too shortly, now that the band has gotten where they’re going, they can stretch their legs a bit before the real heavy lifting begins. As the signature wah wah key notes emerge from beneath emerald waves, the song takes on a bit of a submarine quality, sound waves flutter through a flooded dreamworld, watery notes reverberate off of walls of light.
As the old psychedelic warlock finishes up the story of a disaffected, lazy messenger service employee and an impotent dragon (complete with a big sing-along chorus) and begins his first guitar solo, he’s transformed into a kind of benign aural-astral educator, outlining some initial principles then wading waist deep into heavier concepts before recalling (having nearly forgotten) that there’s still another verse to sing. The crowd responds accordingly, now that they have a firm idea of what’s in store. Donna Jean throws some of her trademark hard/soft vocal stylings in and before you know it the second solo has begun.
Garcia picks up pretty much where he left off, assuming that the groundwork he just set down is still fresh in your mind and, at about 20 minutes into the piece, the mind-blowing passages begin. Everything he’d been so diligently setting up for the last however many minutes falls into place and suddenly he’s painting with solar flares?– locating the fiery mountain high in the heavens. This kind of guitar playing is typically referred to as spiral latticework, which is an incredibly accurate description. Sound helixes wind and wrap around each other, climbing ever higher into far off starscapes.
After the blaze, a reasonable holding pattern is established before Garcia launches into the stratosphere a final time, straining to reach the top of it all, the highest peak imaginable, when suddenly the explosive apex is attained and, in Icarian fashion, everything comes crashing down. Foundations shake, crystal palaces shatter and the jolting ride back down to earth comes too fast and too furiously. The band synchs up for a succinct sign off and before you even know what hit you, they’re tuning up for Estimated Prophet.