Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Grateful Dead, 'May 1977'

The title says it all: May 1977. For its newest archival release, the Grateful Dead has set the way-back machine for spring 1977.

What has emerged is quite a bounty: five complete concerts (all from consecutive dates performed over six nights) spread out over 14 discs that come bound in a cigar box. It looks splendid, sounds like a dream (everything is mastered in HDCD) and costs ... yeah, it's pricey. May 1977 sells, by mail order only, for about $140. But fewer springtime sounds have a more summery feel than this vacation trek with the Dead.

First, the rough spots. May 1977 offers us the Dead in a period of considerable artistic transition. After scrapping the indie status (including its own label) that it had maintained during the previous four years, the band signed to Arista Records and took on producer Keith Olson (then a pop golden boy, having overseen Fleetwood Mac's first album with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks two years earlier). By the time of these concerts, the Dead's resulting studio album, Terrapin Station, had been completed but was three months from release.

Two Terrapin Station works are featured during each of the five concerts represented on May 1977. Samson and Delilah placed the often clumsy harmonies of Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux out in front of neo-funk grooves that, by Dead standards, sound uncomfortably poppish. But Weir shines on the other then-new entry, Estimated Prophet, which employs wah-wah atmospherics as a springboard for a typically sunny guitar run from Jerry Garcia.

Overall, the sound of May 1977 is light and unhurried. Only occasionally does that rob the music of any vigor. Case in point is the disco-fied arrangement of the Motown classic Dancing in the Street from the set's Chicago discs (a version the Dead introduced on this tour). But even then, there is a promiscuous attitude in Garcia's playing, especially when he is working off the tune's static groove, that excites.

There are triumphs aplenty. The final set of discs, pulled from a concert in Tuscaloosa, Ala., spotlight many of them, including the dramatic band pacing in the medley of Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain (a pairing, cemented on this tour, that became a highlight of Dead shows until the band dissolved in 1995), the remarkable clarity of Garcia's soloing during Terrapin Station's suite-like title tune, and a deliciously rootsy reading of Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo that more than holds its own against the country cover of El Paso that follows it.

It's a feast, to be sure. It took me more than a month to sufficiently take in all of this music. So for those looking for a generous dose of musical sunshine that will last well into the fall, this box of seasonal cheer has you covered and then some.