Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass; Keith Godchaux - piano; Donna Godchaux - vocals; Bill Kruetzman - drums, percussion; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion
Of the nearly two decades that followed The Grateful Dead's post-1974 hiatus from touring, few years are more highly regarded than 1977. With a year of revamping the road repertoire behind them, often within a slower context, now the group was picking up steam again and displaying a newfound focus and energy. A new album Terrapin Station, had interjected the stage repertoire with fresh new material and The Grateful Dead more often than not, were sounding inspired again. The sweetened tone that Garcia developed on "The Wolf" guitar (custom made by Doug Irwin), combined with new processing gear (most notably the envelope filter which gave him a sort of reverse wah-wah effect) often fueled his playing, leading the band into new territory and with a greater musical palette to explore.
The 1977 Spring Tour contained a couple of now legendary runs of shows, both in the North East and at a three night hometown stand at Winterland in San Francisco. The most in-demand Dead tickets that year were for the band's year end run leading up to New Year's Eve, also held at Winterland. The Thursday night show on December 29, 1977 is not only regarded as one of the year's best performances, but also one of the strongest performances ever by this septet configuration of the band. So much so that it became Dead archivist Dick Latvala's choice for his 10th Dick's Pick's release, showcasing the best of the group's road work. Also included in this same release was a good deal of the second set from the following night, Friday December 30, 1977, which found the band in equally strong form.
Presented here is the entire first set from that Friday night performance on December 30th, none of which was included in the Dick's Picks release. Right from the start the band is in good form, opening with "Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodeloo." Garcia's voice and the sweet tone of the Irwin guitar are just two of the strong points of this performance. The entire band sounds focused and the solo sections feature sensitive interplay, with Garcia and the drummers really bearing down towards the end.
Throughout this set, the band is paying close attention to each other, particularly Garcia and the drummers. The front line musicians (Garcia, Weir and Lesh) are physically close, only a few feet apart, and they often turn their backs on the audience forming a circle with the drummers with everyone focused inward (as can be seen in the Video Vault). Another key factor in the strength of this show is Keith Godchaux, whose creative force began greatly diminishing the previous year. Godchaux's greatest work with the band was almost always on acoustic piano and he seemed to lose much of his fire on electric. Here Godchaux is in fine form and with a concert grand at his disposal, which seems to make a big difference. These factors all come into play throughout this set.
With only one exception, The Dead stick to early 1970s material in this set, vacillating between Garcia and Weir fronted numbers. The set continues with Weir's wild west take on John Phillip's "Me And My Uncle," heard hear as a somewhat rare stand-alone version. The "Workingman's Dead" track, "Dire Wolf," which was not commonly performed, surfaces next with Garcia in fine form and with Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux providing harmony vocals. Weir and Godchaux's vocal chemistry is even better explored on the romantic "Looks Like Rain," which follows.
A nice uptempo take on Garcia's "Row Jimmy Row" follows. This early stab at incorporating reggae into the band's repertoire was often a hit or miss affair post their 1974 road retirement, but here, thanks to its sprightly tempo and some interesting slide guitar work from Garcia, it remains engaging throughout. A jaunty version of Johnny Cash's "Big River" has Garcia and Weir teaming on lead vocals, followed by a definitive reading of the traditional "Peggy-O." The latter number was rarely played better than in 1977, when Garcia seemed most enamored by it, and this is a fine example. His vocal and guitar work, combined with Godchaux's piano embellishments, make this version a pure delight.
Phil Lesh's "Passenger" serves as the lone number off the new Terrapin Station album to appear in this set. A rare example of Lesh contributing a relatively straightforward rocker to the band's repertoire, this is a forceful version when the band had gotten a much firmer grip on it than the studio recording. Lesh and the drummers provide the propulsion, Garcia gets an opportunity to cut loose on slide again with Weir and Donna Godchaux teaming up on lead vocals.
A tight engaging performance of "Ramble On Rose" serves as Garcia's next number, before they wrap up this first set with a terrific performance of Weir's "Let It Grow," which had became it's own entity (outside the longer Weather Report Suite) during this era. This is the highlight of this set, with the group stretching out a bit and never losing focus. Even during the verses Garcia is interjecting leads (often the sign of him itching to cut loose!) and when they hit the jam sequence, the entire group takes flight. Weir's distinctive rhythm work, reinforced by the drummers, is at the heart of the action, but its Garcia, Lesh and Godchaux who truly take this soaring. "Let It Grow" is an inspired conclusion to this first set and a clear sign of the heights The Grateful Dead would climb during the second set.