On the Crest of a Wave
One of the many great pleasures of listening to so much Grateful Dead material is the variety of styles of music heard. Every year, and in fact every tour, found the band challenging itself to find new creative destinations for their music. At any given show, one can identify touches of the many styles of Grateful Dead music played throughout their history-but rarely does any one show clearly display the essence of several distinct periods of their sound. New Year’s Eve 1976-1977 is one of those shows that contains the best elements of three or four clearly defined eras, and the sum of the parts adds up to one of the most interesting, and inspired, concerts of the band’s 30-year performing career.
Opening with the rather frequent 1976 show opener “Promised Land” followed by “Bertha,” the show begins as a quintessential 1976 performance: mostly confident, deliberate, and slightly tentative. As the set gets rolling, the band begins to take more chances, heading toward the typically powerful 1976 second-set material. However, as the first set nears its close, we are treated to a version of “Playing In The Band” that is as large, long, and exploratory as any version from late 1974. A satisfying 1976 first set is elevated to the realm of 1974 flashback by this masterful performance.
The midnight festivities get off to a rousing start with the appropriate “Sugar Magnolia” opener. What comes next is a sustained 40-minute run of music that ranks up there as one of the best-played jams of 1976. Starting out with the new, faster, more powerful version of “Eyes Of The World,” the jam then slips into a beautiful “Wharf Rat.” Next up is only the third performance of “Good Lovin'” sung by Bobby Weir. As if this wasn’t enough, Weir then drives the band through a reggae-tinged beat that magically morphs into one of the smoothest, funkiest versions of “Samson And Delilah” ever performed. This was a song that was played at all but two of the 41 shows performed in 1976, and despite the possibility of staleness due to overplaying, this version stands out as unique compared to the other 38 versions. Disc 2’s finale, the mid-point of set two, again recalls 1974 with a long, rollicking, and peak-laden “Scarlet Begonias.” Amazingly, the best was yet to come.
After a solid run of “Around And Around,” “Help On The Way,” and “Slipknot!” (minus the third part of the triumvirate, “Franklin’s Tower”), the band proceeds into a note-perfect “Not Fade Away,” ending this massive second set with one of the longest and most emotionally draining versions of “Morning Dew” ever performed. This rendition is at the top of many Dead Heads’ favorite “Dew” lists, up there with Cornell and 10/18/74. A three-song encore ends the night, capping one of the most intriguing evenings of Grateful Dead music, one that bridges the gap between the exploratory jazz of 1973-1974 and the orchestrated perfection of 1977. New Year’s 1976-1977 is a timeless night of music that reminds us all that there really is no easy way to categorize the Grateful Dead, and there certainly is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.
Those pre-ordering the set will also get Spirit of ’76, which features an hour of the headiest unreleased material from….you guessed it, 1976. It’s been more than six months since the last GD archive release, and we are pleased as punch to see Rhino rolling out the material. Now let’s all hope they keep up the good work.