To say that the Grateful Dead (or even the current incarnation of the Dead) is a “known quantity” would be an understatement. Given the length of the group’s career and the vast amount of recorded material available, there aren’t too many undecided people out there. The mere mention of the band’s name typically elicits reactions ranging somewhere between infallible, undying love and disgusted, barely contained disdain, depending on the person. The rest are somewhere in between or have yet to attend a college party in a blacklit dorm room. In any case, To Terrapin: Hartford, ‘77 won’t convert the non-believer, but pristine sound quality and an enthusiastic performance make this release a worthy, if somewhat unnecessary, addition to the band’s legacy.
Like listeners who follow many other jam bands, most Grateful Dead fans hold quality live recordings in higher esteem than studio recordings. The communal aspect of the concerts, the improvisational variances, and healthy whiffs of nostalgia (especially if you were there) color opinions on which tours reign supreme within the fan culture. Debates among Dead Heads will endure past the next Ice Age, but sometimes a miraculous consensus emerges into the light. The spring 1977 tour has gone down in Grateful Dead lore as one of the most storied tours from this most storied band. This was a magical era indeed. The band returned to the road after a touring hiatus and played a series of well-received shows. Guitarist Jerry Garcia was enjoying a period of good health and fine playing, as was keyboardist Keith Godchaux. This being the Grateful Dead, however, bad times were always just around the corner (especially if you played keyboard). Nevertheless, the spring 1977 tour birthed a number of memorable shows and arguably represented some the band’s finest live performances since 1972-74.
A lumbering version of “Bertha” leads off the proceedings on a somewhat tentative note, belatedly finding its stride. Garcia struggles to locate his microphone in the early going, and the drums aren’t always in-time with the rest of the band. Then Garcia offers up a clear, fluttering solo that seemingly drives the band to become more cohesive with each passing note. Following “Good Lovin’”, in which Bob Weir growls a lot and sounds generally fired-up, Garcia and the band ease into a classic version of “Sugaree” that stretches over 19 minutes. Garcia’s voice beautifully melts between improvisational passages that range from glacial to fiery. Godchaux’s careful plinking especially augments the more serene segments. The rousing conclusion and subsequent crowd reaction suggests that this night was to be a special one. This rendition of “Sugaree”, perhaps the definitive version of the tune, is reason enough for the avid collector to seek out this collection. A spirited version of “Jack Straw” and a gorgeous, mournful “Row Jimmy” close out the first disc of the set.
Discs two and three find the Dead swinging from fan favorites like “Brown-Eyed Woman” and “Playing in the Band” to newer songs such as “Terrapin Station” and the reggae-tinged “Estimated Prophet”. Inspired playing abounds and some striking shifts in mood remind of the Dead’s ability to create stark contrasts within a single song. For example, the two-part good-time sing-along “Playing in the Band” wanders off down a dank, dark hallway before Garcia’s spiraling guitar line releases the ghostly tension. The Grateful Dead often took musical detours from the dancing bear world of peace and love before 1977, but moments like these seem right in line with the general malaise and celebration of ugliness that was the punk era. It was, after all, 1977.
Studio engineer Jeffery Norman, who has worked on various projects for the Grateful Dead since 1980, expertly mastered this performance to HDCD specifications from the original reel-to-reel tapes. Positive results are apparent, and the sound quality is uniformly excellent throughout. However, whether or not this release appeals depends on one’s level of Grateful Dead fandom and personal set list preferences. To Terrapin joins Volumes 3 and 29 from the Dick’s Picks series for May 1977 alone, so this is a well-covered era for official live releases. Considerable set list overlap exists between Volume 29 and To Terrapin, but since the former is a limited edition release and less available, perhaps the latter is more necessary than at first glance. Nevertheless, previous releases from the Grateful Dead archive covered the 1977 tour before this release.
If you didn’t like the Grateful Dead before, To Terrapin: Hartford, ‘77 isn’t likely to change your mind. However, for the Grateful Dead fan (even one without a Steal Your Face-logo duvet), this live recording from a particularly strong tour is a testament to the band’s enduring appeal.