Hey gang, sorry it’s been so long since we last rapped, but things have been way hectic. I finally cut my hair and got myself a respectful 9-5. Actually more like a 9 – 9. But it’s been all good in the hood. Hopefully in the coming months I won’t be so much of a stranger!  Today we’re looking at the latest Grateful Dead Box Set from Rhino – Winterland June 77 – The Complete Recordings. (next week I’ll be talking about the new Jerry Garcia Band set, also from Rhino).

“A lot of Dead Heads say ’77 is their favorite year. And of these shows, the first night is a Top 15, the second is a Top 10, and the third is a Top 3.” – David Lemieux, Grateful Dead Archivist.

At the end of 1974, the band took a much-needed break from touring. 1975 saw the release of the ambitious Blues for Allah album and in 1976, the band returned to the road, refreshed and ready to rock.

By 1977, the band were firing on all cylinders. The band had introduced some new songs to the repitoire – Jerry Garcia’s proggy “Terrapin Station” and Bob Weir’s “Estimated Prophet,” which, along with Jerry’s “Fire on the Mountain,” featured a cool reggae vibe. “Fire” found its niche, being paired up with the breezy “Scarlet Begonias” – a duo that would become a highlight of the band’s concerts right up to the end.

Spring tour kicked off on April 22nd at the Philly Spectrum, and through the next six weeks, the band was playing tight and focused concerts each night. While it’s hard to find an “off night” during the tour, May 8th 1977 at Cornell has long been heralded as “the one” — the band’s finest concert. While it is definitely a five star, Grand Cru performance, my favorite show of the mighty spring 1977 tour is the tour finale on June 9th at the band’s homebase — Winterland.

The first set absolutely smokes. Every song is a top ten rendition with my vote for the best ever renditions of “The Music Never Stopped,” the funky “They Love Each Other” and the downright dirtiest and grittiest version of Jerry’s murder ballad — “Loser.”

But the second set is where it’s at. The setlist reads like a greatest hits album. David Fricke hailed the second set as the band’s best ever, calling it “an instant opera of spiritual biography…”

After a rousing “Samson and Delilah,” Weir informs the audience that they’re experiencing some sound problems with the vocal monitors. (While the soundcrew works out the problem, Jerry leads the band through a bouncy workout of “Funiculi Funicula.”) With the sound problems taken care of, the band launches into the triptych of “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot!” and “Franklin’s Tower” — “Help” is dynamic and sharp, but the “Slipknot” bridge clocks it at a full eight minutes of downright wicked and serpentine jamming. The “Franklin’s Tower” that culminates is close to perfect.

“Estimated Prophet” follows, and bubbles into a ferocious “St. Stephen” that crackles with that primal 1968 energy before roaring into “Not Fade Away” and then back into the climax of “St. Stephen.” Whew!  The stirring “Terrapin Station” and the spirited “Sugar Magnolia” that close out the set are as satisfying as they come.

Needless to say, this is one of those shows that I have listened to over and over again — driving to work, relaxing with headphones, on airplanes, on trains. I have no problem with calling it out as one of my all-time favorites, so when I heard that Rhino’s next “big box” was going to be the whole three-night stand at Winterland, June 6-9th, 1977, I was pretty damn excited.

Among the reasons as to why the 1977 spring tour is so venerated among fans is the fact that great-sounding tapes of many of the shows have been in circulation for many years and were among some of the first shows that novice Heads listened to on tape. Even the shittiest-sounding audience recording of the tour still sounds pretty damn good. Fan-made audio remasters of many shows, with gorgeous and crystal clear sound, exist in the band’s archive.

So once again, Rhino has the unenviable task of taking music that was essentially free to anyone with the blanks and postage, packaging it, and slapping a big ol’ ($99.99) pricetag on it. The Winterland 1973 box sounded incredible and was a huge improvement over the somewhat muddy-sounding boards that had made the rounds. Taking the already bright-sounding tapes of some seminal 77 vintage Dead and improving upon what is already out there would be a pretty big feat. However, the High-Def transfer from the original reels is shockingly good. The somewhat “claustrophobic” soundboards are given much more room to breathe. There’s a lot more ambiance in the room and more audience in the mix.

Is it one hundred dollars good? Well, that’s hard to say. A lot of people are more than ready to shell out the bucks for a package this high quality, while other folks will just hang on to their tapes and FLAC files. The music is out there, if you look hard enough. The booklet and box are both beautifully made and presented and include some great photos and the aforementioned David Fricke essay.

While June 9th sounds better than ever, the other two nights sound equally brilliant and are no less inspired. June 7th features a couplet of “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” that goes toe to toe with the highly regarded May 8th version. This show also features one of only four times where the band performed “Terrapin Station” linked into “Morning Dew.” “Morning Dew” rising like a shadow from the triumphant refrain of “Terrapin” is truly dramatic. It’s as beautiful a version as they come. Jerry’s soloing intermixing with Keith’s gentle piano before building up to a fiery climax.

June 8th sports a note-perfect first set and a nearly-twenty minute “Eyes of the World” becomes the centerpiece of the second set. It stretches out with some truly inspired playing by everyone. This is that “X-Factor” that folks talk about. The jazz-fusion chops that the band honed during their marathon jams in the early 70s are crystallized into a free and easy groove.

While “Dark Star” didn’t resurface for many years after the band’s hiatus, “The Other One” became a fairly regular part of the band’s second set. This “Other One” smolders under a lengthy guitar workout that tapers off into some truly sweet and delicate exploration. Garcia’s guitar notes fluttering like a moth around a candle. Keith’s piano making chase. Bobby’s guitar making trippy swells of sound.

Early orders for the box received a bonus disc – the incomplete soundboard reels from May 12th at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. A creaky audience recording has been in circulation for years, but the soundboards have never surfaced until now. It features loads of jamming and an oh so sweet “Comes a Time” – a song that never became part of the band’s permanent rotation, but was played out more often in spring of 1977 than any other time.  Just another reason why this was such a magical and inspired time for the Grateful Dead.

The first set

is a corker as well – A down and dirty “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, a sweet “Cassidy”, an unusual mid-set “Deal” and funky renditions of “They Love Each Other” and Bob’s crowd favorite – “The Music Never Stopped”. Not to mention one of the all-time best versions of Jerry’s “gambling and guns” song – “Loser”.

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