Live at the Cow Palace: New Year's Eve 1976
#10 Boxed Set/Live Album/Music DVD for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2007, Volume 14, #2
Written by John Metzger
As anyone who became hooked can attest, attending a Grateful Dead show always felt like a sort of homecoming. Whether it was held in an arena, a stadium, or a theater in Chicago, San Francisco, or New York City didnít matter. Magic inevitably was in the air as friends long separated once again were connected. Even when the band was experiencing its darkest hours, there simultaneously was a calming sense of peace, love, and happiness that permeated the communal gathering. As the lights went down and the band took the stage, the assembled crowdís excitement and anticipation would peak in a thunderous roar as it collectively pondered the question, "What do you think the opening song will be?"
In the case of the Grateful Deadís 1976 New Yearís Eve concert, which recently was issued in its entirety on the three-disc set Live at the Cow Palace, there likely wasnít much debate. While legendary promoter Bill Graham was making his introductory announcements, the groupís members took turns cycling through snippets of Chuck Berryís Promised Land. Sure enough, as soon as Graham completed his speech, the Grateful Dead began to saunter its way through the song. The bandís slow, deliberate approach provided hints as to the direction in which the bulk of the concert would head, though this undoubtedly also was a reflection of the Grateful Deadís recent, two-month vacation from touring as well as its customarily minimal preparation for a show. The groan that Bob Weir emitted after the conclusion of Promised Land was telling.
Still, even when the Grateful Deadís members were struggling to come together as a single-minded entity, it was capable of moving mountains and reconfiguring the cosmos. As the first set of its concert at the Cow Palace progressed, the ensemble began to find its footing. On the one hand, its laid-back approach to Bertha allowed the song to assume a cheerfully breezy buoyancy, in spite of Jerry Garciaís botched lyrical delivery. On the other, Merle Haggardís Mama Tried was nothing more than a safe circling of the wagons, while They Love Each Other lumbered along in a frustratingly uneven fashion, showing sparks of creativity in the solos by Garcia and pianist Keith Godchaux yet never quite coalescing.
The turning point, however, occurred during Looks Like Rain, a tune that never failed to produce high drama, particularly in the various permutations that the Grateful Dead unleashed in 1976. The delicate nature of Garciaís aching guitar solos joined the emotive, intertwined vocals of Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux to convey the mood of heartache and loss that is described in the songís lyrics. The cascading waves of sorrow that emanated from its conclusion provided the perfect release of the tension that had been built so carefully.
The rendition of Deal that followed gradually mutated from a shuffling gait into an insistent, driving groove that seemed to signal the end of the first set. Yet, rather than leave the stage, the Grateful Dead acknowledged its newly reformulated connectedness by launching into an expansive reading of Playing in the Band. Its dark, spiraling passageways alternately were framed and paved by the instrumentation, which rose, fell, twisted, and turned in an extravagantly intricate dance, the songís ethereal melody bouncing among the accompaniments provided by Garcia, Weir, Keith Godchaux, and bass player Phil Lesh. Bent but never broken, the tune offered a surreal glimpse at the celestial wonders of the universe. In providing safe transport back to Earth, the band bathed its journey in a warm, life-affirming glow that was so powerful that it left the group no choice but to take a break and prepare for the countdown to midnight as well as the latter half of the show.
As one year passed into the next, Bill Graham appeared out of a giant hourglass, and the Grateful Dead began its second set by launching into a jubilant Sugar Magnolia. The song rather effectively eased the band back into its groove, and as its celebratory atmosphere dissipated, the jazzy refrains of Eyes of the World emerged. Taking its time, the ensemble explored every nook and cranny of the sunshine-baked tune. Toying with the melody, Garcia and Lesh painted brilliant patterns of color with their distinctly separate but utterly synchronized solos.
As cheerfully as Eyes of the World was delivered, the subsequent Wharf Rat assumed a more somber and serious tone. Even so, the dusky desolation of its verses was balanced perfectly by the gospel-bred rays of light that filtered through the surrounding music. As a result, the song became a prayer of hope for the coming year, and Wharf Ratís ponderous conclusion provided a time for reflection.
Immediately thereafter, the Grateful Dead tossed care to the wind as it turned the eveningís soundtrack in a deeply funky direction via the one-two punch of Good Loviní and Samson & Delilah. Embracing the vibrant, driving cadence provided by the tandem percussion of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, the group created a dance-party atmosphere that lingered for the remainder of the night. Twirling through the rainbow-hued beat of Scarlet Begonias, soulfully swinging through the blues-y shuffle of Around and Around, tumbling down the winding corridors of Help on the Way and Slipknot, and immersing itself within the slowly simmering ambience of Not Fade Away, the Grateful Dead further brushed away the cobwebs that had clung so tightly to it during the showís opening moments. The dynamic power and haunting beauty of Morning Dew, the raucous exuberance of One More Saturday Night, the easy-going playfulness of Uncle Johnís Band, and the hushed spirituality of We Bid You Goodnight were just the icing on the cake. As with the groupís prior archival releases, Live at the Cow Palace boasts a stunning sonic clarity that suitably enhances the intricacies of the Grateful Deadís performance. Once again, the collection is more than just a historical document; itís a breathtaking glimpse at the exhilarating environment of the bandís concerts.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box