ITHACA, NY (LOOTPRESS) – On May 8th, 1977, the Grateful Dead performed what would become one of the most highly acclaimed and immediately recognizable shows of their decades-long career, taking the stage at Cornell University’s Barton Hall.
Having since become a staple of the band’s recorded history as well as having been included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, and/or informing or reflecting life in the United States, the 5/8/77 show is widely considered to be the best of the band’s career.
The Grateful Dead are known almost exclusively for their live performances, as each show presents a unique take on the group’s expansive catalog and would bring different facets of the members’ respective skill sets and abilities to the forefront each night. The Barton Hall set saw the stars align, as it were.
The set not only featured a remarkable performance from the band itself, the live recording of the night’s events was impeccable, rivaling much of the polished and touched-up studio material actively being released by contemporaries of the band at the time.
The characteristically lengthy setlist included plenty of live-staples and fan-favorites such as “Morning Dew,” “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” – known collectively as “Scarlet/Fire,” and a band take on a Jerry Garcia solo tune “Loser,” which on this historic evening, was given a particularly exhilarating treatment by the enigmatic musician. An emotional runthrough of the minor-key number was capped off by a scorching, squeal-infused guitar solo by Garcia, who seemed to endue each passing note with a deeply rooted sense of sorrow and frustration.
Inner-band issues weren’t terribly conspicuous on this night or event at this juncture in the band’s career, but trouble was brewing just beneath the surface. The late-70s would bring about the beginnings of singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia’s well-documented health struggles which would eventually lead to his passing in August of 1995. The band’s keyboardist for the show Keith Godchaux, who joined the band in 1971, was approaching an even earlier demise, and would ultimately pass away just three years after the show.
But though such issues were decidedly close to reaching a fever pitch on May 8th, 1977, the bubble had yet to burst. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the Dead were arguably at the top of their game on this very night. Though opinions vary greatly among devoted fans, the general consensus dictates the band’s 1972 European tour and 1977 Barton Hall performance as being two definitive musical peaks for the band.
Both Godchaux and his wife, backing vocalist Donna Jean, would depart the band in 1979 amidst various issues both personal and professional. This would give way for an entirely new period for the band complete with changes in personnel, musical direction, performance dynamic, and more.
Nonetheless, the May 8th, 1977 performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall stands still today as a high watermark for a band whose unique approach to live performance served as the catalyst for a musical and cultural movement which remains ongoing in the present.
The live recordings taken from the show were released on May 5, 2017, and again in 2023 in a remaster form for Record Store Day.