* Charles Mingus: The Jazz Workshop Recordings 1964-65 (d.1-2) (Mosaic 7CD)
* Charles Mingus: The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (Verve 2CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Directstep (CBS/Sony CD)
* The Spanish Donkey (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Mike Pride): XYX (Northern Spy CD)
* Slobber Pup (Joe Morris/Jamie Saft/Trevor Dunn/Balazs Pandi): Black Aces (Rare Noise 2LP)
* Paul McCartney & Wings: Wings Over America (Best Buy Exclusive) (MPL/Concord 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: May 1977 (GDP/Rhino 14HDCD)
* U2: Zooropa (Island CD)
* Queens Of The Stone Age: …Like Clockwork (Matador 2-45RPM LP)
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner HDCD/DVD)
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD/DVD)†/‡
* Kylesa: To Walk A Middle Course (Prosthetic/Alternative Tentacles LP)
* Kylesa: Time Will Fuse Its Worth (Prosthetic/Alternative Tentacles LP)
* Kylesa: Static Tensions (Prosthetic/20 Buck Spin LP)
* Kylesa: Spiral Shadow (Season of Mist LP)
* Kylesa: Ultraviolet (Season of Mist LP)
* Torche: Meanderthal (Hydra Head LP)
* Torche: Harmonicraft (Volcom LP)
* Intronaut: Habitual Levitations (Instilling Words With Tones) (Century Media 2LP)
* Akron Family: S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans 2LP)
* Akron Family: Sub Verses (Dead Oceans 2-45RPM LP)
* Riverside: Shrine Of New Generation Slaves (Mystic/InsideOut 2CD)†
* The Sword: Warp Riders (Kemado CD) †/‡
* Pelican: Pelican (Hydra Head CDEP)†
* Russian Circles: Empros (Sargent House CD)†
* Wild Nothing: Nocturne (Captured Tracks CD)
* Wild Nothing: Empty Estate EP (Captured Tracks CDEP)
* ASG: Blood Drive (Relapse 2-45RPM LP)
* Deafheaven: Sunbather (Deathwish 2-45RPM LP)
When asked, many longtime Deadheads would point to Spring 1977 as one of—if not the very best—tour ever. In fact, the May 8 concert at Barton Hall at Cornell University is so highly regarded that the Library of Congress selected it for inclusion in the National Recording Registry in 2012.
There are good reasons for this almost universal acclaim.
For one thing, the band had just concluded recording sessions for their Arista debut, Terrapin Station, whose high-powered producer, Keith Olsen, demanded the sort of discipline and precision the Dead were not at all accustomed to. When they hit the road at the end of April, they not only had a bunch of new songs to premiere, they were as tight, polished and professional as they’d ever been (or ever would be). The performances during this period are almost universally strong, if not always downright inspired.
Another big reason this tour is so highly revered is the extraordinarily nice sound quality of the tapes. Recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson, these so-called “Betty Boards” are not "soundboard" recordings at all (that is to say, taken from the PA system), but a separate mix constructed from a direct line feed from the on-stage microphones. Without a doubt, her tapes are amongst the best-sounding two-track concert recordings ever made—and have circulated widely amongst tape-traders since the digital revolution of the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, the Spring 1977 tour has been heavily mined by Grateful Dead Productions since the inception of Dick’s Picks back in 1993, with Volume 3 and Volume 29; To Terrapin: Hartford 1977; the Download Series Volume 1; Dave’s Picks Volume 1; and the Winterland June 1977 box set all deriving from this remarkably fertile period.
Nevertheless, the Cornell show has never been officially released.
Why? Well, the master tapes are not in The Vault—but are, instead, being held ransom by some individual who purchased the contents of Cantor-Jackson’s storage unit back in the late-80s, when she was on the outs with the Dead organization, destitute and forced into foreclosure (for the sordid details, check out the interview with Cantor-Jackson in The Taper's Compendium). This person not only has the master reels from Cornell but also the following night in Buffalo (which is, in my opinion, even better) as well as a bunch of other stuff that is not in The Vault. Supposedly, s/he wants a million bucks for this cache of priceless (and rapidly degrading) master reels. GPD refuses to pay—and I don’t blame them.
As a result, the new May 1977 box set is something of a misnomer, in that it does not represent a true picture of that magical month. However, we do get five consecutive concerts, picking up at the St. Paul Civic Arena on May 11. And it is typically solid, with a strong “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain” sequence and a spine-chilling space-out after “Uncle John’s Band.” The following two shows from the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on the May 12 and 13 have never previously circulated from Betty’s masters and are substantial upgrades from the lousy radio broadcasts and audience tapes that are out there. However, aside from the outrageous “Other One” on the 13th, they are unremarkable—despite the lovely acoustics. But then the St. Louis concert from the 15th is almost as legendary as Cornell, with an over-the-top, disco-fied “Dancing in the Streets” that goes on for nearly 20 minutes and the very first (and smoothly seamless) pairing of “Estimated Prophet>Eyes of the World.” But, for me, the May 17 performance at the Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the highlight of this box set. The Dead rarely played the Deep South and here they are quite obviously on their best behavior, delivering a generous 14-song first set that concludes with a 25-minute “Scarlet Fire” plus a solid second set featuring a magnificent jam of “Terrapin Station>Playing in the Band>Drums>Wharf Rat>Playing in the Band.” It doesn’t get any better than this, folks.
My only quibble with this era of the band's history is the noticeable decline of Keith Godchaux. At times, he could still be mellifluously inventive on the keyboards but mostly he drifts off into a somnambulant plod, mindlessly banging on the piano, repeating simplistic rhythmic figures in dull, root positions. This regrettable tendency would only increase in the coming months, eventually leading to his forced departure from the band in January 1979. By the same token, his wife (back-up singer Donna Jean Godchaux), was not an altogether positive element of the Dead’s sound, with her wordless caterwauling during songs like “Playing in the Band” and “Scarlet Begonias” bordering on the embarrassing. Still, I have to admit she probably is at her very best on this tour, providing tasteful harmonies on the slow ballads and country-inflected numbers that peppered the repertoire. Despite their ups and downs, Spring 1977 is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of the Keith & Donna era.
So, is this latest box set the last word on Spring ’77? Unless and until the master tapes from New Haven, Cornell and Buffalo are recovered, it probably is. Then again, it’s unclear whether the entire Palladium run in New York is even in The Vault. The Download Series Volume 1 (now defunct) was taken from the April 30 show—and the commonly available second set from May 4 is definitely one of my favorite Dead sets ever. Otherwise, none of this stuff circulates in remotely decent sound quality. Now, that would make for an interesting release!
While May 1977 is also available as a (very expensive) FLAC download, the gorgeously crafted 14-HDCD box set is a numbered limited edition and will surely sell out—especially given the downright reasonable price of ten bucks per disc. Last I heard, fewer than 3500 of the 15,000 boxes are still available from Dead.net; if you want it, you better grab it fast. Trust me: you won’t regret it.