The Grateful Dead’s May 8th, 1977 Cornell University show is a source of great contention among deadheads. Overrated? Maybe. Often criticized? Definitely. But regardless of whether 5/8/77 is truly the best Grateful Dead concert of them all, as many people believe it is, this show’s impact on several generations of listeners is beyond debate.
I think my personal history with this show is probably pretty typical and illustrates why 5/8/77 holds such a high station in the pantheon. In the summer of 1996, I was working at a day camp with a woman who was much more into the Dead than I was. Up to that point, I had listened to a bunch of the band’s studio albums as well as Europe ’72 and Without a Net, and while I liked those live albums in particular, I wasn’t anything like a “fan” of the band. But I knew a bunch of songs from a variety of eras, so I wasn’t totally green either.
I was getting ready to start my freshman year at, you guessed it, Cornell University, and when camp ended, my co-counselor gave me a tape with the second set from this show on it. (It was missing the encore). She told me that 5/8/77 was special, and that I was lucky to be going to school at the place where the Dead created such a magical moment. Keep in mind that, up to this point, I had never heard a non-official recording of a Grateful Dead show. So when I put this tape into the stereo and heard Take a Step Back for the first time, I was a little perplexed. Why was this stage announcement on the tape? I didn’t think that I was going to have to suffer through talking before getting to the music. But oh boy, when that music started, I understood, for the first time, what the big deal was. It was like a light bulb suddenly turned on and I could see, immediately, the power and glory of the Grateful Dead.
The funny thing about this whole situation is that, despite my “epiphany”, I didn’t immediately go out and try to grab every Dead tape that I could get my hands on. (Remember, there was no Archive in 1996). In fact, it would be years before I got my hands on my second show on tape. During those next five to six years, I was much more into other music, and still would never have called myself a fan of the Dead. But I played the holy hell out of that one tape.
I suppose that there are a lot of people out there like me who were exposed to this show in a somewhat similar manner, because it was ubiquitous on every college campus in America and was of very high sonic quality (to say nothing of the actual playing). And most of the people who got their hands on this tape probably never took the next step into full-fledged fandom, but if asked about the Dead, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, I had this one tape and they kicked ass. But I never really got into the rest of their music”. And that is what, in my opinion, probably accounts for a lot of the lore surrounding this show.
But what about the music? Well, as I said, for the longest time I only owned the second set of this show, so getting my hands on the first set was like Christmas all over again. But I don’t think that the first set is on the same level as the second. Sure, it’s good, but it really sounds very similar to a lot of the Dead’s other 1977 output. . . Except for the set-ending Dancin’ in the Streets. This song is outrageous in the best sense of the word, with an absolutely locked-in Phil Lesh and two drummers at the top of their games.
Too much has been written about the musical content of the second set, so I’m not going to take up a lot of space describing it. What I will say is that after a lot of listening to Dead shows, I still think that this is one of the best Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain I’ve ever heard and it’s a top-five Morning Dew. The St. Stephen>Not Fade Away>St. Stephen portion is scorching. The one song that I never really enjoyed that much when I first got the tape, Estimated Prophet, sounds fresher and fresher every time you listen to it, especially once you come around to the fact that Bob Weir was an idiosyncratic wizard on the guitar.
Having spent longer than anticipated discussing this show that has already been discussed to death, I’ll just say that if 5/8/77 is going to be your first true listen to the Grateful Dead, you’re in good company – wherever the music takes you.
Here’s a link to the soundboard: https://archive.org/details/gd77-05-08.sbd.hicks.4982.sbeok.shnf