Dead & Company played highlights from The Grateful Dead’s original Cornell ’77 setlist along with their own picks to create a top-tier setlist, adding to the mythos of the Cornell show in their own right.
Stream: ‘Cornell 5/8/77’ – The Grateful Dead
It’s rare for Deadheads to agree on certain things — the Grateful Dead’s best version of a song, year of performances, show, and keyboardist will forever be debated.
One thing most heads can agree on, however, is that there’s something special about the May 8, 1977, show at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. The show is often referred to as the band’s best performance, and has been deemed so important to the story of the Grateful Dead that a recording was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012.
Roughly 4,800 fans got to relive the Cornell experience Monday evening as Dead and Company returned to Barton Hall exactly 46 years to the day since the Dead played their fabled show at the Ivy League institution. This time around the show served as a fundraiser for Cornell’s 2030 Project, an initiative to develop and accelerate tangible solutions to climate change, and MusiCares, a Grammys nonprofit group that supports the health and welfare of music industry professionals.
Before the band — comprised of Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti, Oteil Burbridge, and Jay Lane — took the stage, fans had mixed expectations for the show. An exact recreation of the original Cornell setlist would surely result in a memorable night but might be too kitschy of a benefit show concept. Plus, knowing what Dead and Co. will play ahead of time takes away an essential aspect of the experience. And did we really need a recreation of such a legendary show? No matter how well they played, it would never compare to the original.
The general consensus seemed to hope for a mix of the highlights from the ’77 show mixed with some new picks from the band to make the concert their own. That’s exactly what fans got, and it was a barn burner of a show.
The first set kicked off with a solid “New Minglewood Blues” — the original Cornell ’77 opener — followed by the John Mayer favorite “Althea.” Next came an unusually up-tempo rendition of “Estimated Prophet,” normally a set two mainstay, which featured monstrous solos from Mayer. His envelope filter conjured the essence of Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia perfectly and the peaks followed one after the next, resulting in the first big jam of the night.
The energy from the previous jam continued with a quick-paced “Eyes of the World” featuring solos from Mayer, Chimenti, and Burbridge. Mayer and Chimenti have a wonderful on-stage rapport and watching them communicate with each other never gets old. But it was Burbridge’s bass solo that stole the show. Burbridge held the crowd’s attention as he laid down mind-bending bass licks effortlessly.
The band cooled things down with a laid back “Jack Straw” before building the energy back up with “Bertha.” The subsequent “Cassidy” featured a great spacey jam and flowed seamlessly into a romping version of “Deal” to close out the first set.
“China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” kicked off set two. Despite a tempo that perhaps failed to immediately pick back up the momentum of set one, it nevertheless offered a magical moment as everyone belted out the iconic line, “Wish I was a headlight on a northbound train” from the latter tune. As the house lights shined on the crowd in conjunction with the lyrics, one couldn’t help but feel that something memorable was happening.
A vigorous “Help on the Way” bloomed into a deliciously jammy “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower.” After rolling away the dew, Hart, Lane, and Burbridge took the audience on an ornithological-themed “drums” and “space” — a nod to the university’s prestigious ornithology lab. Thundering percussion and trippy midi samples transcended cultures and time signatures, evoking a curious or wonder-struck feeling throughout.
At this point, the band had already played for close to two hours and 45 minutes, but the jams weren’t done. After noodling out of “space” for a bit, the band landed on “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” a callback to arguably the most popular jam from the original Cornell show. It seemed like the moment everyone was waiting for and the venue absolutely erupted with joy.
Mayer absolutely shredded his way through a roaring rendition of “Morning Dew” to close out the second set. Between Mayer soloing, the roar of the crowd, and the crack of the drums building to the song’s climax, it actually became ear-piercing for a moment — in the best way possible. As the song ended, you almost couldn’t hear Weir singing the final line. Speaking of, Weir’s grizzled vocals have adapted well to the tune. Though it was traditionally sung by Jerry Garcia with the Dead, Bobby’s renditions are right up there with the original.
As if the show couldn’t get any better, the band busted out fan-favorite “Terrapin Station” to bring the festivities to an end. It was the perfect song for the crowd to sing along to as the band built up the energy one last time.
In the same way some fans look back fondly on the Dead’s Cornell ’77 show — especially those in attendance — Dead and Company fans will undoubtedly remember Cornell ’23 as an indelible moment in the band’s history.
Considering how much fans paid to get into the event — tickets for the public ranged from $300 to $1,500 — the band absolutely rose to the occasion and delivered an unforgettable performance clocking in at over three-and-a-half hours.
A few observations ahead of the band’s final Farewell Tour this summer. The band seems practiced and ready to pick right back up where it left off at the end of last summer. Songs which typically received flack for being played slowly were instead played a brisk tempo — something that will hopefully be continued in the coming months. Bob Weir’s voice sounds well-rested and better than ever, as does Mayer’s; the vocal harmonies along with the rest of the band were beautiful. And although it would have been nice to have Bill Kreutzmann along for one final tour, Jay Lane brings an invaluable energy and style to the band that is pushing them into new directions.
To sum it all up, last night Dead and Company sounded like a band that doesn’t want to hang it up. It’ll be interesting to see if this is truly the end of the road or if, following the departure of Kreutzmann, there will be a similar iteration of the group next summer. In addition to sounding good, the band was smiling all night long, clearly aware of the caliber of show they were putting on.
Above everything else, what stood out the most is that 46 years later the Grateful Dead’s music still has the power to capture new fans.
Before the show I chatted with a Cornell student who had never been exposed to the Dead before. A buddy had an extra ticket and encouraged him to come to the show. As Nicholas G. Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist at the University of California–Santa Cruz, recounts in the liner notes of the 5/8/77 show, numerous students who had never listened to the Dead attended the show and left “turned on” to the music, unknowingly on their way to becoming lifelong fans.
As I left Barton Hall among the sea of fans, each excitedly recounting their highlights from the evening, I couldn’t help but think about that student who just experienced his first show. I imagined him, and probably a handful of other first-timers, glowing with excitement at the thought of exploring this new music.
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© Jay Blakesberg
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