This one's probably just for the Heads but others who are getting into the jam side of rock and roll and bluegrass will dig this one also. It's live Dead, but unlike some of the bootleg tapes and CDs that sound like bootleg tapes, Live at the Cow Palace New Year's Eve 1976 is as clear as a cowbell, and you can always use more cowbell. I read on the Dead's official site that this CD is recorded in HD. What will they think of next?
Now I'm not getting into a pissing match about if this is or isn't one of the best shows that they have ever done. I'm not like that; I just dig the music, and these three discs have that in abundance. The band sounds tight and the recording crew did a great job. I don't have an HD player of any sort, but I would be impressed if these discs sounded any better than they do on my standard equipment because all of these discs sound great for a live show.
This show comes off smoothly with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir singing so in tune, not just with the lyrics and instruments, but also with each other. “Studio quality sound” is the best way for me to describe it. With Jerry howling soulfully and Bob’s vocals following right behind on “They Love Each Other,” the band takes the audience to a deeper blue than normal bluegrass.
The next song, “Looks Like Rain”, is one of my favorites and it follows masterfully behind “They Love Each Other”. Normally, Jerry is considered the soulful one, but those first words out of Bob’s mouth gave me chills and goose bumps. All this soul laid out to the backdrop of the gentle yet sturdy driving sound of Phil Lesh’s bass. Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart exchange drum rips while Donna Godchaux’s voice shines throughout, and not just on this track, but the whole show. On this track you can see why the Dead needed her as much as they did. This is just a small micro look at this grand package of a show and of the band at that time.
I would have to say that this show was more bluegrass than rock or just outright jamming. The Dead have always used the jam trip to blend and mix genres of music. They can take a hard rocking song and give it a bluegrass-jazz feel, or take a traditional bluegrass or country song and give it a rock and roll soul with some psychedelic jamming. “Playing in the Band” has this type of flair to it. Guitars, keyboards, Phil’s bass, all the instruments head out for an adventure at this point of the show, and what a trip it is. Is it organized improv or just a chance for everyone to tune up again, or was the acid that good? I think I’ve made my decision.
“Eyes of the World,” “Wharf Rat,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Morning Dew” are just a few out of the twenty-two tracks divided up amongst three discs. I have to say, this was one of the most soulful sounding versions of “Wharf Rat” I have ever heard. This set also has one of the shortest versions of “Eyes of the World,” which is one of my all-time favorites because it’s true that “sometimes we live no particular way but our own.” The jam from “Eyes…” to “Wharf Rat” flows with only the magic that Grateful Dead can conjure up.
Of course, there is a “Drum” track, and from it the band drops into “Not Fade Away,” followed by “Morning Dew.” Do I have a problem with slower versions of “Bertha,” “Scarlet Begonias,” or “One More Saturday Night”? No I don't, and I actually like slower tempos on tunes such as those. When played with a slower beat or tempo, it gives the song a new spirit and can sometimes come off stronger than when first heard at its original rhythm. This is what live performances sound like, and this feeling can be felt on these CDs. Things like the cheers from the crowd can be softly heard during the song, but as the band stops or "tunes down" during transitions, the crowd sound gets a little louder, bringing the listener into the Cow Palace to enjoy the vibe that's going around.
Like I said, I'm not going to debate whether or not this one of those "special" shows, but from the sounds I have heard of these discs, I sure wish I had been at this show. What makes a great band isn’t just the music they make in the studio, but how well they can perform it live in front of people. The Grateful Dead have that ability; Live at the Cow Palace proves it.
Written by Fumo Verde