Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Thoughts On The Second Set Of 5/8/77

  • Most famous Dead intro?
  • Bill Graham at the Great American Music Hall on One From The Vault is pretty good.
  • This one just kinda happens.
  • General Admission wasn’t as highly structured in 1977 as it is today: the kids could crush up against the stage, and Take A Step Back was a regular in set lists throughout the years.
  • And then, Phil.
  • Garcia starts it, sketching out the chords.
  • Bobby, too; a tiny counterpoint.
  • And Mickey hits his tom three times:
  • And then, Phil.
  • WOMP!
  • Ba-DOOOM.
  • And begins the second set of 5/8/77, which is the selling point of the show, which is the most famous show and BEST EVAR and Library of Congress and yarble yarble.
  • Around 70 minutes of (almost interrupted) uncut choogle: this is not the stepped-on custy shit.
  • Garcia has taken over the song, because that is what Garcias do, and his tone is purer and cleaner than it would be on Fall Tour, when he would switch from the white Travis Bean to Wolf.
  • Mrs. Donna Jean only helped out in the Scarlet>Fire transition sometimes, but I like when she did: it is very spooky and I become frightened, but in a good way.
  • She sounds like a sexy ghost.
  • Garcia is now soloing again.
  • I’m going to stop mentioning that: you should just assume Garcia is soloing at all times.
  • Anyway, here’s my thesis: the revisionists are wrong, and this set is actually special.
  • This doesn’t discount from the meta-textual bullshit that weighs the show down; a large part of why 5/8/77 is more famous than other (arguably better) shows from that tour is because it was more available than other shows, as a tape, back in the day.
  • IMG_4231
  • (I stole that picture from Jesse Jarnow, which means you have to go buy his book.)
  • That was the tape everybody had, not 5/25 or 5/5; some people may have had those shows, I suppose, but I did not.
  • As with everything else, I was strictly an end-user when it came to Dead tapes: I knew one guy who traded, and he made me copies of his stuff, and not all of it.
  • And I suspect that there were a lot more people like me than there were committed traders with libraries who were able to make any sort of educated comparison between shows.
  • But here’s the thing: if you had a thousand tapes, or a hundred, or a dozen, then one of them was going to be 5/8/77.
  • If you only had one Dead tape, then it was definitely going to be 5/8/77.
  • So, the revisionist theory states, if we had the entire Fall Tour available to us–as we do now–we would not privilege May 8th, and instead see it as just another of a string of superb shows from the East Coast.
  • The rallying cry of the Cornell Revisionist is “Not even the best show of the week.”
  • (I have decided that Cornell Revisionists are now a thing that both exists and needs to be capitalized.)
  • Ahem.
  • You all right?
  • I get excited when he does that.
  • One of his better tricks.
  • They are now screwing around in between songs, which is different than tuning between songs, but they are also tuning a little.
  • A thought I’ve had: what if other bands took five minutes between each song, but we just don’t know it because they didn’t record everything?
  • Estimated starts like Scarlet: Mickey’s toms and Phil’s swoopity bass.
  • His bass–and its swoopifying–is one of arguments against Cornell Revisionism: while Phil played variations of the Scarlet intro at other shows, and was swooping up and down the neck of his guitar all year, he did it the best at this show.
  • Phil is on fucking point, motherfucker.
  • Charlie comes, Phil’s getting ’em first.
  • Get some, Phil.
  • Keith is back on the wimpleorgan, and it sounds like a funeral for a TV vampire.
  • I know I was going to stop mentioning when Garcia soloed, but he has turned the Mwah Mwah Machine back on, and it makes me so happy I had to tell someone; it’s late and I didn’t want to knock on the neighbor’s door.
  • Funny thing: remember the whole “uninterrupted choogle” thing?
  • Yeah: no.
  • Literally five minutes of absolutely nothing after Estimated.
  • Great Estimated, by the way: it’s still going as I write this, but I feel like jumping ahead in order to chastise a rock band 39 years ago.
  • Of course: the five minutes of dead air occurred at the show that occurred, but I’m listening to the show that got recorded, so it goes right from Estimated into St. Stephen, one hit after another.
  • (None of these songs were hits, at least not for the Dead.)
  • At least in the version of reality represented by the tape, the second set of 5/8 has a forward thrust, a rushing momentum, that combines with a dramatic leanness–there’s no Drums–to coalesce into a greater work; perhaps that you can’t easily break it into the “pre-Drums/post-Drums” that began to take hold around this time gives it a cohesion that was rare for later second sets.
  • Plus, it fucking rocks.
  • The Dead didn’t rock a lot.
  • We both know what they did, and what type of semi-defunct band they were.
  • But this hour-plus can stand up there with Metallica.
  • (It cannot; that is wanton hyperbole and cheapens us both.)
  • The jamming in this set is more directed than usual: it is the difference between radiation therapy and making love to a Real Doll made of plutonium.
  • And it might be the best defense of Mickey: this sound, this roar, this tumbling thunder is worth the hassle of having a second drummer, and the added hassle of having it be Mickey.
  • Not Fade Away is doing something to my loins.
  • I want to hump food.
  • Or eat sex.
  • Something primal, that you need a shower after.
  • Garcia is now playing primarily harmonics, high and wheeling and FWAAAAAAAANG and it is a good sound.
  • If forests made this sound, I would hike more.
  • But forests just sound like birds.
  • Some forests sound like monkeys.
  • But I digress.
  • If there’s any show from the tour that can rival this one, it’s 5/5; that’s it.
  • I have made my arbitrary decision: FITE ME.
  • First sets are first sets–we all love them, but they’re not allowed to drive the car–and though there are far better first sets (anything with a Sugaree or a Half-Step), no show has a better second set; ipso fact, no show is better.
  • If no show is better–
  • Don’t.
  • –then 5/8 is–
  • Don’t you do it.
  • Thank you.
  • Fuck you.
  • No, not “fuck me,” pal: the category of BEST EVAR is a valid and vital one; it is chosen objectively and based on merit and logic and reason.
  • None of what you said is even possible. There’s nothing objective about art; it exists outside of language and operates purely on an emotional level. Furthermore, a piece of art this famous is even more unknowable, as it’s impossible to evaluate on its own merits. 5/8/77 is the Mona Lisa of the Dead’s universe, and you’re unable to separate the work from the bullshit.
  • Well, yeah, if you put it that way.
  • Such a good show, though.
  • Gonna get back to it.
  • You stay safe out there.
  • Sure: Keith starts out Morning Dew on the wimble, but switches over to piano; Keith always played ballads well.
  • Although Dew really isn’t a ballad; it just seems like one.
  • Faster than Ramble On Rose, for example.
  • The whole second set is quick, but it’s not a rushed and frenzied speed: it’s like a freight train full of beardos.
  • The Dew is around 14 minutes and most of it is Garcia soloing: sometimes he plays a lot of little notes, and sometimes he plays a few big notes.
  • Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics.
  • Back to soloing.
  • Listening to them well and surge and drive the song up and down, building to the peak, masterfully like this makes the 80’s–and Garcia’s slide–that much shittier.
  • The dynamics went out of the band soon after this; each song was one mood and one volume, and the music lost and got lost.
  • Everyone is listening to, and playing around, Garcia: it’s like he’s the accompaniment and the band is all soloing.
  • And now the drummers commit Ragnarok.
  • And Bobby does a little fanning of his own, but NOW GARCIA’S DOING IT AND I LOVE THAT SO MUCH AND HE WON’T STOP DOING IT and he stopped doing it BUT NOW HE IS AGAIN AND–
  • Knock it off.
  • Sorry.
  • It sounds like the end of the world, or like battleships having make-up sex.
  • And then the world ends.
  • Not with a whimper, but with a power chord.
  • But, you know: gotta do the encore, and it’s a good one.
  • One More Saturday Night gets no respect: the Dead stuck it in the encore spot, and the Dead half-assed their encores.
  • OMSN was a victim of geography.
  • Big and boppy here, though.
  • Bobby yelps and Phil swoops and Garcia solos and it sounds just like the Grateful Dead are supposed to sound.
  • There are a bunch of acceptable music theory nerd ways to change keys, but the best way is the rock and roll way: the Cymbal Crash Key Change.
  • This can be explained using the old rock maxim: If you do something loud enough, it doesn’t have to make sense.
  • Thank you all, good night.


  1. This handsome fella is named Victor Barton.

  2. I’ll still stick to my guns that 05/09/1977 is even better, but I’ll openly admit my biases: Help > Slip > Frank, The Other One, and Comes a Time are all the best.

    Ain’t nothin wrong with 05/08/1977 though, excpet Ithaca College is better than Cornell…Go, Bombers!

  3. Supposedly, 5/8/77 is not in the vault. I believe it’s in the pile from Betty’s locker and the guy who has it is trying to bleed the Vault out of money. And the Vault doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Yet, I’ve heard that there are some developments to getting it back in the Vault and that when that happens, you’ll see a May 7-8-9 Box Set. That’s why Boston & Buffalo weren’t included in the recent May 77 box.

    • mrcompletely

      May 9, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      all basically correct. the person that owns the missing May ’77 reels is the same one that owns the July ’78 reels recently returned to the Vault for that upcoming box set. So there’s no reason not to be hopeful an official release will come before too long.

  4. mrcompletely

    May 9, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Cornell is a great show, one of the best of ’77. If it’s your favorite, great, and if it’s not, that’s ok too. My quick breakdown:

    1) first set average to slightly above for the tour aside from Dancin’

    2) Dancin’ is a top shelf version of the “disco” arrangement – not my favorite (2.26.77 is mine) but it’s seriously killer

    3) The first truly great Scarlet > Fire, but the transition jam isn’t fully developed yet & neither are the mid-song Fire solos, so it’ll never compare to the peak S>Fs from ’78 and such for me…but it is a top shelf version and has that great ending.

    4) I don’t hear anything special in the middle of this set. Cool squidgy Estimateds are a dime a dozen on this tour, it’s a fine one for sure. St. Stephen is always great but this one isn’t exceptional. And the NFA, which is widely regarded as a highlight of the show, doesn’t strike me as that great. It has one great section in it and another long stretch where not much happens, but really it’s about the competition. There are fucktons of great NFAs in ’77. This one is average for the year at best I think.

    5) the Dew is fucking incredible. They really weren’t playing it much in those days either – only 9 versions from ’76 thru the end of the Godchaux era. I don’t think it’s possible to pick a Best Dew Ever, and I tend to like the sparser feel of the ’72-74 versions, but this is a legit legendary version and if it’s your favorite I’d never argue.

    So that’s 3 true top-shelf song performances, 4 if you count Scarlet and Fire separately and want to give points to Scarlet for the swoopy intro (I don’t). That’s a hell of a good count and obviously puts the show into a pretty elite list, but there’s quite a bit of competition if you want to look at it that way.

  5. So 364 days until the 40th anniversary of Cornell. Hmmmm.
    There is still time to plan.

    A clean trifecta of Boston, Cornell and Buffalo would be 7-7-7!

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