Grateful Dead – 5/8/77
Grateful Dead – 5/8/77 (1977)
I had one of my go-to Friday classics lined up for today, but then it was pointed out to me that today's date is the anniversary of what's considered by many to be the greatest Grateful Dead concert ever performed, so I feel it's only appropriate to write about it. I'm not sure if this meets my strictest definition of "album", but any such definition is irrelevant when talking about the Grateful Dead. Their "discography" is a handful of studio albums, a dizzying multitude of live ones, and innumerable further bootleg recordings of performances, each of these categories likely orders of magnitude in volume beyond its prior. Wikipedia counts over 200 official releases. The band's existence manifested in its live performance and, for reasons I admittedly cannot claim full qualification to corroborate, the one on May 8, 1977, at Ithaca, NY's Cornell University is regarded as among their finest.
Superlatives aside, the recording of this concert offers an eminently enjoyable and illuminating musical experience. With the Grateful Dead being a fixture of my upbringing, via my parents and their friends, it's exceedingly difficult for me to pin down an objective consideration of their music and cultural import, but I think now with the distance of adulthood and some of my own independent "Dead" experiences to speak of (more below) I can attempt unemotional hypothesis. It's simply good music. For all its depth and complexity and protracted jamming, there's undeniable catchiness to it. There's melody. These songs get stuck in your head. The band is often reduced to their status as counterculture icons, associated with psychedelic drugs and hygiene-averse hippies, but if you actually sit down and listen to the music there's much more to it than that. In fact, if we're talking strictly about the lyrical content, the personages summoned to mind will more likely be of the spaghetti western variety, Antebellum stalwarts cooking up whiskey in their basements, or stowaways hopping the iron horse to try their luck at cards in the next town down the tracks.
In the past couple years, with the much-appreciated motivation of a couple close friends, I've gone to a handful of concerts put on by Dead & Co, a current incarnation of the Grateful Dead. Most notably, it includes John Mayer on lead guitar and sharing lead vocal duties with original member Bob Weir – loosely filling in the place of Jerry Garcia. Each of these concerts draws thousands; the 2018 show I attended at Citi Field saw nearly 30,000 in attendance. Most of these have been experienced outdoors around sunset. When I recall those shows, and listen to 5/8/77, it's hard to imagine that such a multigenerational phenomenon of life-affirming music and culture apexed in a dingy military fieldhouse. It's no secret that humans have a propensity to glorify the past and I wonder if these hallowed moments of history were truly as remarkable to contemporary participants as they're purported to be. Either way, this concert is a moving listen, and succinctly – in a mere two hours and forty-five minutes – captures the band's energy, spontaneity and artistry as an inimitable and indelible force of music in our modern world.