To Terrapin: Hartford 77
By all accounts, 1977 was a pivotal year for the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead Movie (clever title and direction courtesy of one Jerry Garcia) hit the big screen for a brief, uneventful run (the DVD makes up for lost time). The Dead also signed with Clive Davis’ Arista label and agreed to work with Keith Olsen, the hot shot producer behind Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled smash hit Olsen diligently attempted to recast the Dead’s sound on Terrapin Station by adding strings, horns and other odd ornaments. There was some unhappiness about these studio embellishments, but that was easily resolved when the songs were played live. The Dead stormed the country side in the Spring of 1977, road-testing the new material within the loose confines of their ever-changing set, and finished up the first leg in Hartford, Connecticut on May 28. To Terrapin: Hartford 77 is a three-CD document of that stirring night.
The gravy train of live Dead trotted out is enough to max out the credit card of any respectable, well-intentioned completist. But really, isn’t it time to sell off those extra Dick’s Picks CDs lying around and step up to yet another fine package from Rhino? To Terrapin: Hartford 77 (along with the multi-disc Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings) are the latest in a long line of live Dead shows mastered to HDCD specifications from the original reel-to-reel soundboard tapes, creating an unbelievably crisp and pristine playback that rivals being there.
The mid 70s, of course, was a fertile period for the then six-man, one-woman lineup. The jury may have still been on whether Donna Godchaux and her piano playing husband Keith were enhancing the groups’ vision. Listening to the keyboards squeak through the rumble of Phil Lesh’s bass is enough to give any man’s goose bumps the well-deserved night off. The three-song thread of “Bertha,” “Good Lovin'” and “Sugaree” start things off sportingly, and they only get better from there. Bob Weir is in peak form — playing it cool on “Jack Straw” before unleashing a powerful growl on “New Minglewood Blues.”
It’s on the new material that the group really takes flight. Weir’s vocal (with plenty of help from Donna Godchaux) stays on track on “Samson & Delilah,” the Phil Lesh and Peter Monk tune “Passenger,” and his own “Estimated Prophet,” distinguished by its laidback lyric and odd time signature. Upon hearing the Hunter/Garcia magnum opus “Terrapin Station” before the inferior studio version was released a few months later must have provided some out-of-body confusion among seasoned Deadheads. But the group seized a golden opportunity, turning the suite into a live centerpiece without the window dressing. On May 28, 1977, it merely hinted at its subsequent greatness.
The colorful three CD set of To Terrapin: Hartford 77 includes a 16-page booklet, a handful of photos, and an intriguing essay by Gary Lambert. We may never get an official release of the legendary first run of 1977 at the infamous Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California, where the songs from Terrapin Station were first introduced. But, as any fan from those days will attest, 1977 was such a banner year, any show from that era is highly coveted. Of course, demand would reach near epidemic proportions in the 80s and 90s, transforming the Grateful Dead into one of the most successful touring organizations in rock history. We'll save the details of that period for another review.
~ Shawn Perry