This week the Dead released a box set that I was not too excited for when it was announced, but it has now floored me with its incredible quality! As most of you probably know, ‘78 was a year with a lot of ups and downs for the band both musically and personally, and I always approach shows from this year with some hesitation. The band had developed what I think of as a Big Machine-like sound, in that all the members of the band were parts of this giant engine, and when they were all doing their individual parts in synch, the music had this incredible momentum that the band had been building up to through ‘76 and ‘77. When the members of the band were not in synch, however, that machine could come to a crashing halt; when you have two rampant drummers, a drunk bassist, and a coked-up rhythm guitar, some not so coherent tempos are going to emerge. This box set, thankfully, has no such rhythmic disasters, and is really a great snapshot of the Dead at their best in this era.
These tapes were some of the recently recovered Betty Boards, soundboards recorded by Betty Cantor Jackson when she was still with the band. Those tapes have famously been scattered to the four winds ever since they went on auction from her storage locker. Betty was one of the best things to happen in the world of Dead recordings, and she has quite the reputation for the quality of her recordings. On top of the already great recordings, Jeffrey Norman has once again mastered the mix to perfection, and every note and growl is heard as clearly as the day it was in ‘78 (I assume).
As a quick aside, the rumor that I’ve heard is that the owners of these soundboards are the ones who have the Cornell ‘77 show that the Dead have always claimed they don’t have in their vault. So some are thinking that once Dave Lemieux negotiates their return, we’ll have another May ‘77 box set with New Haven 05/05, Boston 05/07, Cornell 05/08, and Buffalo 05/09, with Cornell also being available as an individual show, like they did with Red Rocks 07/08/78 on this one.
Anyway, here are my notes and thoughts on the box set, by show. The box is unfortunately sold out, but you can still buy the digital release here, view the tracklist, and listen to some sample tracks. They released 5 shows, three of which had previously not circulated as soundboards. The two Red Rocks shows are famous for being the band’s first shows at that historic venue, and for being excellent shows in their own rights. I, like everyone else, always held the second Red Rocks show on a pedestal, and with this crystal clear recording, it’s even easier to see why!
7/1/78 Arrowhead Stadium: Kansas City, MO
- A weird show, in that there is only one extended set, but the weirdness of the arrangement possibly even fuels the band’s own weirdness!
- The band is a little loose and wobbly at first, but there is an undeniable energy to their playing.
- The first disc is like a condensed version of a first set, and the second disc is the same for a second set.
- This was played at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July shindig, and the Dead were third on the bill. They must have blown a lot of these cowboys’ minds.
- The second discs is one of those discs I know I’m going to play a lot by itself. All the songs could be a little longer, but they absolutely kill them all.
- I don’t think “Estimated” has ever come post drums in a show, let alone out of “Space”!
- Absolutely stellar “Wharf Rat,” I could actually just listen to this over and over.
- I rarely rant about how good Jerry is, because it’s so obvious, but holy shit! JERRY!!
7/3/78 St. Paul Civic Center Arena: St. Paul, MN
- Possibly the best “Loser”? I mean who’s really to say, but they really get this one right.
- The Machine is really chugging along tonight!
- We get to witness some of the early days of Bobby’s slide guitar obsession...you all know what that means.
- I think he started in Spring of ‘78, and you have to wonder if Jerry ever sat him down and asked what he thought he was doing.
- His fills and smaller rhythms with it could actually be pretty great, but you’re all just going to stand there and watch him solo with that thing?? I can only imagine how Warren Zevon felt...
- Part of what makes the Big Machine work is that everyone in the band knows the songs so well at this point that more of them can play around the melody at once, and they all trust the others to do the right thing and meet up again in the right place. This is what makes the Grateful Dead so good, and I hope it’s something we’ll be seeing more of as Dead & Company finds its feet.
- Both of the “Scarlet > Fire”s in the set are shorter than one would hope, but they’re both fantastic in different ways. This one is longer and closer to what you would expect than the Red Rocks one, which we’ll get to.
- Really good “Dancing in the Street,” and it gets pretty spacy instead of being straight disco like it was in the previous two years. Also interesting to compare to the Red Rocks version, which is shorter but even spacier.
7/5/78 Omaha Civic Auditorium: Omaha, NE
- Some sound issues on “Sugaree” and “BIODTL,” but you can tell that they actually happened live because the band reacts to them. Or I’ve tricked myself into hearing that, what do you think? Otherwise, incredible versions of both songs.
- Great versions of “They love Each Other,” “Dire Wolf,” and “Lazy Lightning > Supplication.”
- “Deal” to open the second set, pretty unusual.
- I still think the “Estimated > Eyes” from DaP 15 is better, but this one is a classic.
- So many good “Wharf Rat”s on this box set, so hard to say which is the best. It’s either this one or the Kansas City one.
- “Truckin’ > Iko Iko > Around and Around” is another unusual feature of this show. This is a much better “Iko Iko” than most, and it’s not typically a favorite of mine, but I really dig this one.
7/7/78 Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Morrison, CO
- Their first show at this venue, which maybe explains why some of these songs seem a little more tentative than other versions. They also blow the big shows, so maybe they were just nervous about that?
- Even if some of these songs aren’t as good as their counterparts on this box, it’s still a fantastic show.
- “The Music Never Stopped” was the best it ever was in 1978.
- I always forget that in ‘78 they stopped singing the final “flight of the seabirds” verse in “Cassidy,” and I wonder why they did that?
- As short as some of the other songs are, this “Cold Rain and Snow” is a monster! Keep your snappy 2 minute versions to yourself.
- Keith really takes charge in the “Scarlet” jam and takes the music in places it usually doesn’t go from “Scarlet.”
- “Fire on the Mountain” is way too short, but it’s got such a different vibe to it here. It was always very groovy and funky, but this version is a little smoother and less bouncy.
- Same for “Dancing in the Street,” it’s a lot shorter but very different. Instead of rocking out into drums, it kind of drifts away into space.
- A smoking version of “Not Fade Away,” the way it should be. The Big Machine seriously gets cooking here.
7/8/78 Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Morrison, CO
- A famous show, and rightly so, everything here is top-notch.
- Very Big “Minglewood” and “Ramble on Rose.”
- The obvious set-piece is “Estimated Prophet > The Other One > Eyes of the World,” and for good reason. This is such an awesome combination of songs, and they’re all played flawlessly. They could all be a little longer, but there’s so much packed into each one that you really can’t complain.
- I really want to know why Bobby says “I’m moving to Australia” at the beginning of “Estimated.” If anyone has any idea, let me know, please.
- What people talk about less, but is still amazing and I’d say more unique, is the “Space > Wharf Rat > Franklin’s Tower > Sugar Magnolia” transition out of “Drums”! Again, “Wharf Rat” is pretty short, but powerful. “Franklin’s Tower” is just such a weird song to go into, and it seems even weirder to go into “Sugar Magnolia”! Having said that and looked up setlists, I do see that they did these three in the same order at least once before, on 1977-03-19, so there’s that…
- Triple encore!
- Another short-but-great version of a song, this time in “Terrapin.”
- Much better “Werewolves of London” than the first one on the box, Bobby’s slide is a little more under control.
This box set is definitely a great addition to the Dead’s recording legacy. It’s exactly what we want in official releases: excellent quality in both recording quality and the quality of playing, and shows that are not widely available. Any release that points out snapshots of brilliance in unexpected places is a release worth listening to, and this one did absolutely that! Let me know what you guys think, and tune in for more next time! As always, you can follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook, and let me know what you want to read about in the future.