46 Years Ago
For Grateful Dead fans, or as they call themselves, Deadheads, the date May 8, 1977, stands out a little more than others. On this date, 46 years ago, one concert at Cornell University made history. Those not well versed in the Grateful Dead may wonder how one show could be so legendary, as it's rare for a band to have such a unanimously agreed upon “best” show. The fans who were lucky enough to be present at the venue in Ithaca, New York in 1977, recall that magic was made that night.
Who was the Grateful Dead?
The Grateful Dead was a psychedelic classic rock band from San Francisco, formed in the 1960s. They were known for their ability to experiment with sound and blend musical genres. Fans were often decked out in tie-dyed shirts, sporting the band’s colorful symbols such as dancing bears, a lightning bolt, or the classic Steal Your Face image at their concerts. “Dead” concerts were known for recreational drug usage, such as LSD and marijuana. The event was classically accompanied by a light show and booming music coming from their, “wall of sound.”
What made those concerts so special for fans was each show’s uniqueness. It was the thing that kept them coming back, show after show. In the 1970s, an entire subculture was molded by the Grateful Dead, in which their die-hard fans created a community who dependently traveled together to, “tour” with the band. Excitement during each show never faded for these fans because each night was a completely different performance from the night before. Members of the Dead always took pride in the fact that no two setlists were ever the same.
True fans were addicted to the lottery of songs at each concert, which always depended on what the band was feeling each night. With nearly 500 songs in their repertoire, this was something more than attainable.
That Magic Night
It’s even more incredible that so many Dead Heads seem to agree that the show at Cornell University on May 8th, 1997, stands as their favorite. But what made this show so special, that even the Library of Congress inducted it into the National Recording Registry? It was a confluence of many positive aspects that created a perfect show. Just about every facet of the night moved fluidly.
To begin with, many fans believe that the Grateful Dead peaked in the spring of 1977, and new music was flowing after the band had just come off a long musical hiatus in 1975. Similarly, Cornell had just come off one of the worst winters that upstate New York had ever seen.
The blizzard of ‘77 kept students locked inside for more than a week. The campus borders the Great Lakes atop a hill, causing it to face extreme weather. This specific year, the spring meant freedom and lack of restriction after what winter brought. The campus was bustling with students looking for ways to let out the pent-up energy that was growing all winter long. The venue contributed to the significance of this performance. Barton Hall is an intimate setting, as only 8,500 lucky fans were able to attend that May night. The set list also added to the significance of the performance. The acoustics were ideal. The energy of the band and its interplay with the crowd added to the magic.
Luckily, for its fanbase, the Grateful Dead always encouraged the recording of their shows, something that most bands never allow. After thousands of bootlegged shows, the performance on May 8th stands out among the other recorded concerts. This recording showed the delicacy and sound the band produced that night; one that has never been replicated. This crisp recording has been released on record, which has increased popularity and viewership. This concert, which can be found on most audio streaming services today, was also able to be passed down through generations of Dead Heads.
The Beginning of Dead & Co.
In 2015, John Mayer and Bob Weir joined two original members of the Grateful Dead to form Dead & Co., A Grateful Dead revival band with some of the Grateful Dead original members. Dead & Co. quickly began to sell out stadiums filled with fans who were looking to relive the excitement that those concerts gave them in their youth. Dead & Co. concerts mimic Grateful Dead concerts almost perfectly. Go to a Dead & Co. show now and you will see the same merchandise being sold, fans wearing the same traditional garb, and the same classic songs being sung and danced to by the crowd. This band eclipsed the success of all of the other Grateful Dead tribute bands.
The most important missing piece is Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, and singer, who passed away in 1995. Mayer, an accomplished solo artist who counts Garcia among his influences, has filled Jerry’s shoes seamlessly.
After the successful run of Dead & Co. since its creation in 2015, the band decided this summer would be their final tour. Their leader, Bob Weir, is soon to be 80 years old, and Bill Kreutzmann, the original drummer, passed on the offer to tour. The perfect way to kick off the band’s farewell tour seemed obvious; an attempt to recreate the most iconic show in Grateful Dead history.
Back to Barton Hall at Cornell
The announcement that Dead and Co. would venture back to Ithaca, New York, and grace the venue of Barton Hall once again was well received. The show sold out immediately. Due to the projected popularity of the show, it was set up as a fundraising event, where proceeds would go to, “MusiCares” and, “Cornell University’s 2030 Project”. The Cornell project is working toward a climate change solution. This was a wonderful way for the band to pay thanks to the ivy league institution, who’d hosted their most iconic show.
Many people anticipated a recreation of the original setlist, but Dead & Co decided to surprise fans. The 2023 setlist was composed of highlights of the original concert while adding in some of the band's favorite songs to play together. This led to a completely unique setlist with clear chemistry and excitement between the band members playing it. According to those who were lucky enough to attend, it seems Dead & Co. were able to recreate the magic of that night, 46 years ago.
Their performance continues to receive rave reviews. The day after the show, Bob Weir took to Twitter. He wrote, “They say lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, but I think it just might have. Thank you for a grand time, both 46 years ago and last night, at Cornell University.”
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6 days, 17 hours ago by Pdowden
Great to see Dead & Co. using the event to raise money for such an important cause.
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