ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — The Grateful Dead performed thousands of concerts, none acclaimed quite like their May 8, 1977, show at a Cornell University field house on a freakishly snowy night.
Revered by Deadheads and honored by the Library of Congress, the Barton Hall show is back in the psychedelic spotlight on its 40th anniversary. On Monday, “Grateful Dead Day” will be rung in, literally, with Dead tunes played on chimes in Cornell’s clock tower. There’s a new book on the show, “Cornell ’77,” by Peter Conners. And a remastered recording titled “Cornell 5/8/77” is being commercially released to complement the bootleg tapes that have stoked the reputation of the show for four decades.
“It was just an exceptional show from the get-go,” said Mark Nathanson, who as a 19-year-old drove to the show from Toledo, Ohio. “You could tell that the environment was right, the band was right, the crowd was right. All the combinations that are required for one of those magical shows were all there.”
The Dead played an estimated 2,300 shows over three decades from their 1965 birth in the San Francisco Bay Area through frontman Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Their shows were famous for their length, counter-cultural vibe, improvisational style and wide-ranging musical vocabulary ranging from bluegrass to psychedelic rock.
Identifying the absolute best show over the 30-year span is as useful as trying to name the greatest painting or the strongest superhero. But Barton Hall is a consistent contender on top-ten lists by both critics and fans.
Ithaca’s show was sandwiched between Boston and Buffalo on a swing through the East Coast. At least several thousand fans packed into the old stone building on the Ivy League campus. Aficionados say the band was tight on that tour after months in the studio, but their mood seemed loose that day.
Nathanson recalls Garcia grinning on stage and earlier sticking his head from the band’s Cadillac window to launch good-natured gibes at people waiting to get in.
Students who paid $6.50 for an advance ticket ($7.50 at the door and for non-students) heard a band at its height on a good night. The legend came later.
High-quality bootleg tapes recorded from the soundboard became popular among Deadheads to trade and share. Version of songs including “Morning Dew” and “St. Stephen” built the show’s reputation over the years. Covers that night included Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” an appropriate choice since it was Mother’s Day.
Even some of the people there say they only fully appreciated the performance after listening to the tapes.
“I vaguely remember thinking this was a really good show,” said Robert Cooper, then a 26-year-old Cornell graduate living on a commune nearby. “But to say I went home and said, ‘This is probably one of the greatest shows ever!’ No.”
Even the establishment was impressed, eventually. The Barton Hall show was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a rarified collection that showcases America’s recorded heritage. It was part of a 2011 class that also included Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
More official honors came this year when county officials proclaimed Monday as Grateful Dead Day. The proclamation will be read that evening before “Playin’ in the Band” and some other Dead standards are interpreted on Cornell’s chimes.
Barton Hall’s legend was built on the music. Cultural historian Dennis McNally, who has written about the Dead, said it was a brilliant show in a year many Deadheads consider the band’s finest. But he said the show’s reputation also was burnished by weird weather that day. What started as a fine spring day ended with a plunge in temperature and an unusual May snowfall that required Nathanson to clear several inches from his car.
“The fluorescent lights that were in the parking area really made the snow look like sparkling diamonds,” Nathanson recalled, “and I said … ‘a pristine ending to a pristine show,’ as we got into the car.”
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