If you ask Deadheads to name their all-time favorite Grateful Dead show, a resounding answer would likely be 5/8/77 at Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, NY. Of course, choosing a favorite Grateful Dead concert is remarkably subjective, ultimately swayed by personal experience more than any other factor. Yet, for many, 5/8/77 stands alone—so much so that an entire book, Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall (Conners, 2017), has been written on it.
So why is that? First, you have to consider the point in the band’s career. The Grateful Dead had grown from a psychedelic novelty in the 1960s to a reckoning force of musical creation, putting out albums like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty at the start of the 1970s. Tragedy struck, however, when beloved keyboardist and founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan passed away from a number of health complications. His death occurred shortly after the band’s famed Europe ’72 trip, leaving the members heartbroken. While 1973 and 1974 were great in their own right, the band took a hiatus shortly after, only playing four shows throughout all of 1975.
The time off did the band members well, as each got to work on their own music without the pressures of their collective creative entity. By the time they returned, the Grateful Dead were freshly equipped with new music and released the Terrapin Station album towards the end of 1977. A few tracks from that release were already in rotation, including “Terrapin Station” and “Estimated Prophet”—songs that would become legendary in the Dead’s canon.
That, more or less, brings us to the 5/8/77 Cornell show. By the middle of Spring in 1977, the Grateful Dead were in a true peak. Their lineup was settled, and their catalog was packed with so many glorious songs. Semantically, what separates this show from similarly potent performances on adjacent days was its distribution. A soundboard recording from Betty Cantor-Jackson made its way onto a tape, and magically wound up in the hands of Grateful Dead fans nationwide. Because of the widespread access to these high-quality recordings, the show became a well-known go-to show among Deadheads in the know.
The show itself is flawless, packing so much energy into first set tunes like “Jack Straw” and “Brown Eyed Women.” The second set featured just about all the songs a fan could want, like “Scarlet > Fire,” “Estimated,” and a “St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen > Morning Dew” run that is purely sublime. The band ended the show with their classic exclamation point, “One More Saturday Night.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone in May of 2017, guitarist Bob Weir spoke about the mythical status the 5/8/77 Cornell show has attained among fans.
For me it was just another tour. I remember feeling like we were hot back when were doing it. But, for instance, that Cornell show that that people talk about, I can’t remember that specifically. It didn’t stand out for me on that tour. The whole tour was like that for me. I think that show became notable because there was a particularly good audience tape made of it. And that got around. I think it was the quality of the recording was good and the guy’s location was excellent. And whoever it was that made that recording made every attempt to get it out there so that people could hear it.
According to Weir, “[Our label] was freaking about the phenomenon of tapers showing up at our shows. They were insisting that we put an end to this. And we just didn’t want to do that. We didn’t feel comfortable doing that, so we didn’t. [Laughs] And through simple benign neglect we get credit for inventing viral marketing.”
You can listen to full audio of the show below, consisting of Betty’s Boards (remastered by Rob Eaton) spliced with audience recordings from taper Steve Maizner on archive.org, as we’ve been listening to it for the last decade-plus.
Grateful Dead – Barton Hall – 5/8/77
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
Four years ago on May 5th of 2017, the band released an official re-mastered version of the show, Cornell 5/8/77, as a 5-LP (vinyl), 3-CD special remastered release of sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson‘s soundboard recordings from the storied performance. You can listen to the newly remastered audio below via Spotify:
Fans can dive deeper into the famous performance with mini-documentary that interviews several attendees of the 1977 Cornell show and discuss their memorable experiences.
Grateful Dead – Cornell ’77 (Fan Mini-Documentary)
[Video: Grateful Dead]
Set One: New Minglewood Blues, Loser, El Paso, They Love Each Other, Jack Straw, Deal, Lazy Lightning > Supplication, Brown Eyed Women, Mama Tried, Row Jimmy, Dancing In The Streets
Set Two: Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain, Estimated Prophet, St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen > Morning Dew
Encore: One More Saturday Night
[Originally published 5/8/17]