Here is yet another installment of my show review section. In the post I started working on before this I realized I needed to write a review of this show, but I'm not sure which will be done first, this review or that post. But either way, you're reading this now! I've always held this show above the hallowed Cornell show from the night before, sometimes for the wrong reasons. For a while I was such a fan of this show I refused to acknowledge anything good about the Cornell show, denouncing the playing in it as sloppy and too loose. I've come around to the rational side of the argument now, and will be the first to say that the Cornell show should be one of the first things we show the aliens when they land, so they know that we're somewhat intelligent. However, the Buffalo show is still a better show in my opinion. My biases definitely show through in defending this, because it's got some of my favorite Dead songs, and a good setlist is hard to argue with. Help/Slip/Frank, the Other One, Cassidy, Sunrise (if you'll believe it), Music Never Stopped, Comes a Time, Uncle John's Band; how can you go wrong?!
Set 1: Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Cassidy, Brown Eyed Women, Mexicali Blues, Tennessee Jed, Big River, Peggy-O, Sunrise, The Music Never Stopped
Set 2: Bertha > Good Lovin', Ship of Fools, Estimated Prophet > The Other One > Drums > Not Fade Away > Comes a Time > Sugar Magnolia
Encore: Uncle John's Band
Am I right?! Ok, let's start form the beginning, relax. This is the most mature version of the Blues for Allah trio I've ever heard. They are completely in control of the medley, it's neither hurried nor dragging its ass, and it's not afraid to go places you wouldn't expect. Help On the Way boils right along with a great, if short, solo break, and it segues seamlessly into the Slipknot! intro section. Slipknot! gets as weird as you could want it to, and it's obvious from the very start that they're on the same wave length and are all having a great time. The nail the outro, bringing it around an extra time just to show that this ain't the hit-or-miss Dead of '76, this is the Grateful Dead Machine hard at work, est.1977. A good yard stick for Slipknot!, I've found, is if you hear at least one of them "woo!" before diving into the Slipknot! theme for the last time, and Bobby's all about it in this one. Franklin's Tower is exactly what you'd expect for '77, rockin' along and rollin' away the dew. Keith gets onto the weird organ/synth that he had in '77, but to great effect. Most of the time I think he should stay on the electric piano or a real one, since the organ never proved to be his forte, but he really shines with it this time. Listed as 16.5 minutes, the song is really about 14 with a couple of minutes of tuning and farting around, but that's ok, they deserve a break!
From this explosive start they mellow into a normal set-progression, but keep things weird with a solid Cassidy. While it's a song that flirted with the line of being over-played from '76-'77, it's a great song nonetheless. Brown Eyed Women enjoys a classic '77 thrashing, with Jerry letting loose on the solo and vocals, and then a Mexicali that carries on in about the same manner. In fact, Tennessee Jed and Big River bask in the same glorious, May '77 glory, with smooth yet powerful playing throughout. While Big River was always an invitation to rock the fuck out, '77 saw the birth of it as a Garcia battlefield; by '78 you could almost see the smoke coming off his strings! It's in these more straight froward segments that I think this show really proves its mettle against the Cornell one. It's impossible to compare Help/Slip/Frank with Morning Dew or Scarlet Fire, but songs like these that are more set-in-stone as to where they go and how they get there are much easier to compare. Where there would be some small slips in tuning, lyrics, or changes in these songs for Cornell, these are absent from the Buffalo one. Again, both concerts are beyond belief, and the aliens won't believe humans produced them, but the Buffalo one gains small points in these places.
Anyway, they carry on into a nice Peggy-O to calm things down. After that they do what's always been a favorite of mine, Donna's "Sunrise". This seems as good a time as any to clear the air about the "Donna Issue." I like Donna. Eight times out of ten I think she's a great addition to the band and well worth having on stage. She has a beautiful voice when she can hear herself and is putting in the effort, and on her solo songs that comes through the best. Her backup vocals (when she can hear herself) usually add great flavor the a song's texture, and I frankly enjoy how enthusiastic she can get in songs like Playin' in the Band, Greatest Story Ever Told, and Sugar Magnolia. However, we all know what can happen when she oversteps her comfort zone: two ears full of pain. In The Closing of Winterland, when they're doing Around & Around, she famously scared my best friend and I off of our couch when she made a sound like Bobby had just stabbed her in the kidney. My other friend also got a full frontal assault from one of her Playin' screams, and was pretty fragile afterwards (she wasn't even a Dead Head, didn't know what she was getting into when she sat in front of the speakers). But like I said, I generally like Donna, and think that this particular Sunrise is a really good one.
They close the set with a great Music Never Stopped, a song I don't know if I can really call a favorite because it's so obviously good. It's one of those songs that if it doesn't get you dancing, then nothing will. Maybe this is a place where Cornell has the advantage over Buffalo, because we all know the fame and inspiration of the Dancin' in the Streets that closed that first set, but that doesn't mean the Buffalo set closer loses any power. That's one great thing about these two shows, which increasingly seem inseparable in my mind: their setlists are so different as to give each show complete autonomy from the other. They do share a couple songs (BEW, Estimated, and NFA), but the first two of these were pretty standard that May (a conservative description of Estimated), and who doesn't love Not Fade Away?! These similarities, if anything, strengthen the relationship without blurring the lines between the two shows.
After what I assume was a lovely intermission, filled with weird conversations, a lot of hydration (beer counts too), and some small clouds of smoke, they come back with a good Bertha > Good Lovin'. While the pairing of these two makes good musical sense, the Dead didn't always transition smoothly from one to the other. But even when the transition got tangled up, both of these songs are obviously staples of the Dead's repertoire, and the fireworks abound in this version. Luckily they nail the transition this time, making one wonder how they could ever screw it up? A nice thing about '77 Bertha's is that they could be really laid-back. they weren't slow or lazy, but they had a controlled feeling that would be missed in the more haphazard versions in '78. While those could rock the roof right off the house, they didn't always come together right, whereas in '77 they had all the time in the world to bring the song to its climax. A quick word about Good Lovin' in general; this is a Pig Pen song, and Bobby could sometimes ruin a Pig Pen classic (Lovelight, Good Morning Little School Girl, Smokestack Lightning). This is perhaps the best of his Pig appropriations, and this version in particular is very good, but any time I hear the song I wish it was Pig singing it, and I miss the Dead's more adventurous versions when they had him at the helm. But I do love a good Bobby version, he just has big, stanky shoes to fill. In classic late-70's fashion they cool things down with Ship of Fools, a song I've never been crazy about, but still enjoy. This performance of it goes about the way one would expect, no problems or moments of pure inspiration, just a solid song.
Here come the dragons! Yes, it's time for the big second set transition, and while it's not quite the monster it could be, let's not get greedy and forget what they opened with! Estimated Prophet was still relatively new at this point, and the jam section in the middle was in its infancy compared to versions even just a year later. They don't make a wrong step as they go through it, and they're certainly in no hurry, no. The jam gets weirder, and starts to gain momentum until, without any break into drums to prepare us, they launch into the Other One. As I've said, this has always been at the top of my list of Dead songs, and I'll admit that this one is not the most amazing there is. In fact, at under 7 minutes it's a pretty short version, but I can't complain. It's still an amazing song and it'll take your breath away if you stop judging it against the 15+ minute versions that occur elsewhere in this particular month. They slip into drums from here, and instead of bringing it back to the Other One, they go into Not Fade Away. It's definitely shorter than the Cornell one, but in a comparison of the two it more than holds its own. For being such a simple song as far as the cords and arrangement are concerned, it really is amazing the variety of places that the Dead can take it. They can keep rocking out, they can go straight into outer space, or they can let it evaporate into a more tender song, as they do here.
Comes a Time is one of the most tragically beautiful songs in the Dead's arsenal, and I'll fight anyone who thinks otherwise to the death. If this song doesn't pull your heartstrings and make you feel a whole spectrum of emotions that you had previously just grouped under "sad," then chances are your heart is missing and you're either a robot or a rock. This Buffalo version is no different, and takes you on a real journey. Just when you think you're lost in the netherworld of melancholic feelings, however, the Dead pull some of their magic and bring you right back home with Sugar Magnolia and a smile on your face. After a balls out version of Sugar Mags and some tuning and breath-catching, they come back for an Uncle John's Band encore. This song is a great snap-shot of the Dead, a little bit of lightning in a bottle. It's captures the tenderness they were capable of, the feel-good vibe of being at a show, and the psychedelic jamming that could go anywhere (but in this case it's a stand-alone). This is a great note to end a great show on, and they pull it off without any incidents.
So that's that. Let me know if you want more show reviews (which ones?) or whatever. I have a potential idea for the next post, but I can always change my mind.