The Grateful Dead concert that took place at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on May 8th, 1977 is the single one that’s most often cited as the best Grateful Dead concert of all time. Whether or not you personally agree with the all-time-best distinction, the Grateful Dead’s 5/8/77 concert is undoubtedly a fantastic show, and it’s probably the first place I’d direct a newcomer to the band if they were wondering how to get into the Grateful Dead, for a number of reasons.
Before I get into what this show sounds like, I want to put things into perspective with a little bit about how and why 5/8/77 became such a renowned and well-known show in the first place. First of all, the band was still pretty fresh off their one year hiatus that took place in 1975, following the 1974 tour that had the band losing sight of what’s important in favor of harder drugs and excessive partying, which was fallout from the tragic death of beloved keyboardist and founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973.
The hiatus did good things for the band, both personally and musically, and by the Spring of ’77 they were back in full swing, and tighter than ever thanks in part to the forced practice sessions inflicted upon them by famed Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, whom the band had been working on an album with at the time (1977’s Terrapin Station).
Also in the mix here is Betty Cantor-Jackson, the sound engineer responsible for recording many of the Grateful Dead’s live concerts from the 60s to the 80s. Combined with Betty is the broad spectrum known as the Deadhead taping network. At this point in Grateful Dead history, there was a vast tape-trading network run by fans who would record Dead concerts in their entirety and trade them with other people who taped shows, and also give them out to other Deadheads for free. The band allowed it, as long as none of the tapers were trying to make money off their tapes. This tape trading network greatly contributed to the widespread cult acclaim that the band has today, because it started all this chatter about the Grateful Dead and allowed people to have a taste of what a Dead concert might feel and sound like.
The 5/8/77 show was the first time that one of Betty Cantor-Jackson’s soundboard recordings made its way onto a tape. Then it ended up in the hands of a tape-trading Dead Freak, and the rest was history. That tape was duplicated countless times and spread like wildfire among the community. How could it not, when it was such a good show, preserved in pristine quality and widely available to seasoned Deadheads and newcomers alike.
What wasn’t known back then, and what seems obvious today, is that this fascination with the Grateful Dead would persist into the 21st century, and that people would still be just as interested in the music and culture of the Grateful Dead in 2020 as ever before. The legacy of 5/8/77 has continued, as well, and in 2016 the show was remastered and given official release, including a 5-disc vinyl pressing.
As for how this show sounds, well, it’s pristine & clean 1977 Grateful Dead. The entire show is overflowing with beautiful extended jams and a setlist for the ages. There isn’t a crazy amount of experimentation, but the performance is tight and there are many standout, definitive versions of longtime Deadhead favorites, including, which I’ll touch on later, an all-time version of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain” that is one of many required listening moments in Grateful Dead history.
The first set opens decent enough, opening with a rollicking “New Minglewood Blues” into “Loser” and then “El Paso”, which is generally not one of my favorite songs but here it’s not so bad. Where things really start to get going is with “They Love Eachother”, one of the lesser-performed songs in the Dead canon that here is delivered with Jerry’s signature lackadaisical passion.
From there you get a ripper of a “Jack Straw”, and an often-cited “Brown-Eyed Women” that would be near-perfect if not for Jerry missing the vocal cue right at the start. Then a supremely chill “Row Jimmy”, and finally to close out Set 1 you have one of the most rockin’ versions “Dancing in the Street” that the boys ever played. It’s sixteen minutes of funky grooves, complete with Jerry and Donna harmonizing on the verses. Sounds great, and it’s easy to picture that Cornell ’77 crowd absolutely losing their minds to this one. Eventually the tune winds down and Set 1 comes to a close, just as it seems the band was starting to get warmed up.
Set 2 is where this show really stands out, in my opinion. The opener of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” is just such a fantastic rendition of these two classic Grateful Dead tunes, which were almost always paired together in their live shows. Both songs stand on their own as great tunes, but the real magic happens right in the middle, where the band blends them together for a seamless transition. It happens so subtly at first, with Jerry teasing a few of the guitar melodies for “Fire” near the end of “Scarlet”. Then the rest of the band catches on and starts to make their transition, and before you know it you’re rolling into and energetic and clean “Fire on the Mountain”. It really doesn’t get much better than this, at least not on paper (not that kind of paper, you dirty hippie).
Plus, right at the start you get some classic banter, with the band encouraging the crowd to take a step back and spread out so that everybody can be more comfortable. This is something that they did many times over the years, but since 5/8/77 is such a popular show this is the most well-known and of course one of the most entertaining.
For the rest of Set 2 there is not one single dull moment, with a rollicking “Not Fade Away” (with its beautiful Bo Diddley beat) sandwiched between one of my favorite OG psychedelic Grateful Dead songs, “St. Stephen”. And of course, what is perhaps even more of a shining star than this “Scarlet > Fire”, is an iconic rendition of “Morning Dew”. The Cornell ’77 “Morning Dew” rivals the Europe ’72 “Dew” as well as the standout 80s version from 10/12/84 as my choice for all-time great, with Jerry ripping a closing solo that builds and builds in intensity until the final cathartic break, with drums and Jerry’s guitar rising up to bring us to that final vocal delivery, which he nails with precision, of course, just as he had been doing all night.
And then last, but not least, the Dead wind down with an encore rendition of “One More Saturday Night”, despite the fact that this show was played on a Sunday.
As you can see there’s a lot to unpack with the 5/8/77 Grateful Dead show, but really the only way to get started is to listen for yourself, and see what all the hype is about. My personal opinion is that this is a good show, but it’s not the best (3/29/90 would like a word with you). I’ll give it an 8.5/10.
Stream the full show below.
New Minglewood Blues
They Love Each Other
Dancin’ In The Streets
Fire On The Mountain
Not Fade Away
One More Saturday Night