Today in Grateful Dead History: July 17, 1976 – Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA

stealieTo me, this entire run of shows at the Orpheum Theatre encapsulates the best of the Grateful Dead in 1976 – rested, rehearsed, but still ready to take things really far out there when the occasion calls for it.  And this show is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch – a beautiful, compelling performance punctuated by an unforgettable, web-like second set so good that it required a two song encore.

Let’s quickly set the stage for these shows.  The Dead had not toured during 1975 and the first half of 1976, so they had only been on the road for about a month and a half before this run at the Orpheum.  In response to some of the problems the band had experienced dragging around an enormous sound system and playing for the enormous crowds who came to hear it, the Dead, for the most part, chose to book these opening 1976 dates in small halls over multiple nights, which gave them a forgiving environment in which to experiment with new arrangements of old tunes and to work out the kinks in the new material they had recorded during their time off.  The results were amazing.  The band slowed things down dramatically and the nuances in the music could really shine through.  While the Dead could still rear back and fire off smokers when necessary, these summer 1976 shows were dialed down and intricate (some would say to a fault).

Which brings us to tonight’s show.  The first few songs of the night are tentative but bright and you can sense everyone stretching their legs a little after four shows in five days.  But once we get to Peggy-O, things begin to click, starting with the two gorgeous solos Jerry rips off midway and two-thirds of the way through the tune.  Big River keeps rolling along, straight into a long, jammy Sugaree.  This is nothing like the cocaine cowboy Sugarees of the early 80’s when Jerry would slam off note after note after note for ten minutes with no regard for what the rest of the band was doing.  Here, the music plays the band as they weave an intricate tapestry, highlighted by beautiful piano work from Keith (more on this in a minute) and some never-over-the-top guitar from Jerry.  This song just works perfectly.  This is followed by the set-ending Johnny B. Goode, an eclectic choice that gets the crowd extra fired up for the second set.

And what a set this is.  One of the hallmarks of the summer of ’76, and this run of shows in particular, is the second set jams that weave between songs, often with common musical themes that the band keeps coming back to, much like a classical symphony.  You’ll hear that theme come up for the first time tonight during the opening Samson and Delilah, and it’s going to be Keith who is generating the ideas and moving the band forward.  Now, if you recall your Grateful Dead history, you’ll note that Keith basically pushed himself out of the band two and a half years later by barely playing at all (or aping Jerry’s licks note for note) during significant portions of songs, so it’s amazing to hear him take charge here, something that he did often during 1976 and never really returned to again.  Once Samson concludes, we begin Comes a Time, not normally a vehicle for strenuous lifting.  This version starts out sounding like the Jerry Garcia band (they never played it), with strong work from Keith complimenting Jerry.  But once the main portion of the song ends, everyone kicks in and we’re off into a gorgeous jam for the next five minutes.  My best description of this piece of music is that it sounds like it comes from the soundtrack of a late 60’s / early 70’s action/romance movie (think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid) in the best possible way.  It also sounds like nothing else the Grateful Dead have ever played.

After playing with this idea for a while, you’ll hear the group struggle a little bit with where to go next – The Wheel seems like a possibility, but then we dive deep into The Other One instead.  After smashing out of the gate, things cool off dramatically, and the Dead treat us to a long passage of sparse, almost Space-like music before they enter another musical debate that is resolved by moving into Eyes of the World.  This is a smooth, sexy version of Eyes that never gets lost, winding through that same theme from Samson and eventually signaling the possibility of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.  But the Dead don’t seem to want to let The Other One go, so they turn the corner and blast right back into it, along with some purposefully atonal clashes between Keith and Jerry and the second verse Bob never sang before the jam turned towards Eyes of the World twenty minutes before.  Once the song ends the band actually does play Going Down the Road Feeling Bad to take us all home happily.

But of course, that’s not it.  One More Saturday Night ends the show proper, and then U.S. Blues comes out for an encore.  But the audience doesn’t want to leave, so the band comes back out for encore number two – a fourteen minute Not Fade Away that burns off the rest of the gas in the tank with some really open, exploratory playing that you won’t often hear the band pull off during an encore.  And that, friends, is that.

This is a really good show, but none of the recordings of it match its power.  Here’s the Matrix, but the Soundboard and the AUD both have the pluses too:


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