Jerry Garcia and Co. were capable of unbelievable highs and unfathomable lows. The lows take center stage on a lackluster set from Summer '78.
If 1977 served as a particularly magical year for the Grateful Dead with soaring shows, stunning set lists and signs that the legal and emotional tumult of the decade’s dawn was finally gone, the same couldn’t be said for 1978. The performances during that cycle weren’t always inspired or particularly focused, as evidenced by this release, plucked from the second of a two-night stop at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater, just a stone’s throw from Denver.
The first moments of “Bertha” prove labored and lumbering and one isn’t sure that the group will find sure footing. Garcia’s voice is often still strong, not always the croaking, barely audible shadow of itself it’d become just a few years down the line. His guitar playing is especially bright and jazzy, retaining flash and fire and featuring plenty of the flourishes that often made his lead turns an exciting prospect. Then, just when you think you’re in for a bum ride, comes a better-than-average “Good Lovin’” during which Bob Weir pulls his mighty band out of the wreckage and jaunts forward, determined to claim a victory. Garcia rallies, though he’s temporarily handicapped by Donna Godchaux, then in her final months of being a Dead, and her seeming inability to find her own place within the song.
A career-high rendition of “El Paso” saves the day with Garcia giving some of his best lead work of the year but by the time we move onto the next song it’s clear that the night is going to be hit and miss. “It Must Have Been the Roses” works well, “Ramble on Rose” doesn’t. On the latter it sometimes sounds as though there are two bands at play, one that wants to drive the track into the outer limits and another that wants to keep it close to its roots. “Promised Land” is, in a word, perfunctory as Weir attempts to liven things up but instead takes off in a direction his cohorts seem unwilling to go.
“Deal”, always one of the best in the GD oeuvre, feels like an afterthought with everyone wandering through the tune like hazed out stoners in backstage hospitality. By “Ship of Fools”, Garcia sounds exhausted. What works, then? Some of the more far-out elements which come to the fore during the second disc. Everyone almost swings together on “The Other One” before a disjointed and dispassionate “Eyes of the World”. We’re also treated to a “Rhythm Devils/Space” segment that makes you want to get up and go to the concession stand even in your own living room. A blistering take on “Franklin’s Tower” gives way to a confused and meandering “Sugar Magnolia”.
The closing, third disc robs you of all hope. Garcia appears to lose his way in the early moments of an otherwise OK “Terrapin Station” while Weir sounds resigned come “One More Saturday Night”. Everyone seems keen to get backstage, but then comes a surprisingly strong “Werewolves of London”.
We ultimately have a 100 percent live artifact, evidence of a band that was often its own worst enemy. There are moments of sublime playing, as always, but it comes in a wrapper of haze and confusion. This is not the Grateful Dead in its best light. If accuracy and evidence of how lousy the Dead could be is what you’re after, then this might be the record for you. If not, there are countless other releases to chase down, including a number of superior ones in 1978 and 1979, years that were far better times for a band that still had some good life in it.