The Grateful Dead‘s performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, is legendary among fans of the band. There’s plenty of arguing to be done about whether this show deserves the title as the Dead’s greatest performance ever–I’d personally go for something from a few years earlier, when the Dead were more willing to sacrifice big-stage accessibility in the service of mind-melting improv–but you can’t deny that 5-8-77 was a sterling show. Today is its 40th anniversary.
In 1977, the band was at a pivotal point in their career, transitioning from the swampy unpredictability of their early days into the well-oiled touring machine that would carry them to their first and only top 10 hit, and the biggest crowds of their careers, in the 1980s. They’d recently returned to the road from a hiatus that lasted most of 1975, and the band’s refreshed lineup sounded tighter and more capable than ever. After touring for years with a single drummer, the Dead welcomed Mickey Hart, who’d performed with the band in its early days, back into the fold. The dual-percussionist attack reined the band into rock’n’roll rhythmic lockstep, and if that meant sacrificing some of the extreme left turns that popped up in jams of the late-’60s and early-’70s, it also gave the Dead a newfound punchiness that carried Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir’s songs into the cheap seats. It is partially this precarious balance between the weird danger of the early Dead and the crowd-pleasing rave-ups of their ’80s years that has made this era, and 5-8-77 in particular, so beloved.
The venerated status of 5-8-77 is the subject of continual quibbling amongst Deadheads. (For an enthusiastic but slightly skeptical endorsement, check out this writeup of the show from percussionist Conrad Doucette, who played on last year’s massive tribute album Day of the Dead, at Stereogum.) Part of the night’s enduring appeal is the existence of an unusually clear soundboard recording that became one of the band’s most popular bootlegs during the tape-trading era. Part of the legend has to do with circumstance: Ithaca, New York, was blanketed with a bizarre May snowstorm that night, adding to the crowd’s sense that the band was working uncommon magic onstage. Most importantly, of course, is the joyful energy of the Dead’s playing itself, on canonical versions of fan-favorite songs like “Morning Dew,” “Not Fade Away,” and especially “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.”
To celebrate the anniversary, the Tompkins County Legislature is officially proclaiming the date “Grateful Dead Day,” and the chimes in Cornell’s bell tower will be playing arrangements of songs like “Playing in the Band.” Tonight, the nearby State Theater is hosting a tribute performance and “listening party” to a recording of the show. On Friday, Rhino Records released the first ever officially approved recording of the show, which you can listen to on Spotify and other streaming services. And Dead historian Peter Conners has just published a book about the show entitled Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall via Cornell Press.