Winterland June 1977 – The Complete Recordings by the Grateful Dead
Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings
By the Grateful Dead
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
How much Grateful Dead is too much Grateful Dead? The answer to that question certainly depends to a large extent what side of the bus you’re riding on. For those who never hopped on, the prospect of listening to – much less purchasing – nine discs of live music recorded over three nights in 1977 might sound like a sure way for a person to lose what is left of his or her marbles. Fourteen years after Jerry Garcia’s untimely death, the Grateful Dead’s music remains an acquired taste, and misinformation and misconceptions about the band and their oeuvre still run rampant. That’s not a situation that’s about to change any time soon.
It’s too bad, because – taken on its own and stripped of its attendant mythology and cultural baggage – the music contained on ‘Winterland June 1977’ is as thrilling, dynamic and engaging an introduction to the Grateful Dead as anyone could hope for. For the initiated, 1977 is often seen as the Holy Grail or the absolute peak of the Grateful Dead’s thirty year journey through the backroads of popular music. It’s a moment in history that the folks at the Grateful Dead archives keep returning to, and to date there are over than a dozen CDs of other live recordings from the same year.
So, what exactly was so special about the Dead in 1977? It’s not an easy question to answer. By that time, the band had been together for twelve years, and having survived the steep learning curve of the Acid Tests, improvising on psychedelics, and the fallout of the sixties dream, the Grateful Dead had finally become all about music. And, what music it was!
Together, the members of the band brought their various musical interests to the table, and in the Dead’s late seventies mix one can hear almost every style of music conceived of in the American songbook and beyond. From the jug band stylings of their early years, to the grungy psychedelic blues of the late sixties, right through to gargantuan by the seat of their pants improvisations that rivaled Miles Davis and John Coltrane at their best, there’s something for everyone in this collection.
For those who prefer the lovely folk songs of the Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty era, there are stellar versions of Peggy-0, Friend of the Devil and Jack A Roe. From the same period, there are two wonderful takes of Bertha from June 7th and 8th and a beautiful psychedelically tinged take on Candyman that will make you reach for the repeat button. For me, the long exploratory songs are the most compelling reason to buy this set. By 1977, the Dead had jettisoned many of the songs from their early live shows – there are no Dark Stars here – and they clearly sounded like they were having the time of their musical lives digging into new tunes from their more recently recorded albums, ‘Terrapin Station’ and ‘Wake of the Flood.’
The versions of ‘Eyes of the world’, ‘Estimated prophet’ and ‘He’s gone’ offered here each illustrate why the Grateful Dead at their peak had no equals. Ideas that they lacked the chops to express in earlier years or had lost interest in expressing on a bad night in later years, come ferociously to light here in a blaze of exhilarating colour and sound. The Dead could play as far outside of the melodic mainstream as Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra ever did, yet they never strayed from the warm palette of sounds and emotive tones that prevented them from slipping into mere virtuosity. It’s a daunting task to choose a highlight from amongst the three nights of music on offer here, but the over thirty minute triptych of “Help on the Way”, “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower” is absolutely mind-bending, and I’d be hard pressed to pick another half hour of music anywhere that travels through as much territory in such a masterful and entertaining way.
Much has been written about the Grateful Dead, but we have the misfortune of living in a society that revels in train wrecks and tragedies, so a great deal of what is out there to read focuses on the excesses, deaths, and hard drugs that plagued the band throughout their career. One could view their trajectory as a cautionary tale designed to keep people on the straight and narrow path, but that would be a shame. Part of the Grateful Dead’s appeal certainly has to be that they always let it all hang out, warts and all in both their relationship with their music and the outer society. And while it’s true that a careful listen to the music on Winterland June 1977 reveals all kinds of blips, missed cues, and off key vocals, if that’s what people choose to focus on, they’re going to miss the heart of the story. Whatever forces threatened to pull The Grateful Dead apart over the years always found its antidote in the music. And, the music here is sublime. These are songs for the human condition with every flaw perfectly preserved for us to hear. And, like life has a habit of doing, there are those rare times when everything goes perfectly. For a brief moment in 1977, captured here in all of its transcendent glory, The Grateful Dead could do no wrong. So, if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about, there’s no better place to start appreciating the Grateful Dead than by listening to Winterland June 1977. This is truly as good as music gets.