BY HAL BIENSTOCK
In 1976, the Grateful Dead returned from a more than year-long hiatus, when they didn’t tour and played only a few shows. As most people do after a lengthy vacation, they came back re-energized and ready to take on new challenges. The group was working on what would be its poppiest album to date, Terrapin Station, had a slew of new songs that would become Dead standards, and was tighter than usual from all the studio time.
All of this culminated in a legendary run of shows in May 1977, four of which are captured in a new 11-CD set Get Shown the Light, that many fans cite as being among the best they’ve ever played. The selling point is the first commercial release of the band’s performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, which is also available as its own 3-CD package. This concert was one of the better sounding and more easily available shows of the pre-Internet tape trading days, so for many fans who grew up with the Dead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became the epitome of a what a great Dead show sounds like. To this day, it still tops many lists of the band’s best performances, although there are others who say that has as much to do with its ubiquity as its quality.
Get Shown the Light, gives each side ammunition for their argument. There’s no doubt Cornell is a great show. The version of “Morning Dew” that closes the second set is one of the Dead’s most powerful performances. Energy is high throughout and there are also excellent versions of Dead classics like “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away,” and “Jack Straw,” among others.
But every show in this set has equally strong highlights, from “Terrapin Station” and “The Music Never Stopped” at Boston Garden the night before Cornell to “Help on the Way/Slipknot/Franklin’s Tower,” “Comes a Time” and “Sugar Magnolia” in Buffalo the night after. All of the shows in this set could easily become a part of any Deadhead’s regular rotation. A concert in New Haven on May 5, 1977, which is often seen as a prelude to the other three shows in the box, would be a career highlight for many bands, featuring a fiery version of “Sugaree” and a gorgeous “Peggy-O.”
With this set, these four landmark shows are given the treatment they deserve. It sounds great, with separation between the instruments that allow you to hear what each member is doing and how the parts lock together. If there’s a revelation here, it’s Keith Godchaux’s piano, which I don’t remember ever hearing so clearly before.
Forty years later, with nearly every Dead show available at your fingertips, these four performances still stand out.
DOWNLOAD: “Morning Dew,” “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain”