With Live at the Cow Palace, Grateful Dead Productions' newly-formed alliance with Rhino is off to an auspicious start. The three-CD New Year's Eve 1976 is a stunning performance; its combination of improvisational restraint and sense of adventure embroiders a diverse selection of songs.
The Grateful Dead do take a couple of numbers to gain traction. Jerry Garcia graces Chuck Berry's "Promised Land with a couple of gaffes, while "Bertha is the sound of the septet just beginning to flex its collective muscle. A clutch of structured tunes, including the graceful ballet "The Love Each Other and a truly poignant "Looks Like Rain (where vocalist Donna Godchaux keeps herself in check) allows the group to marshal its strength.
The Dead bring a potent force to bear through a forty-minute "Playing' in the Band. The piece has at least three distinct themes interwoven throughout free playing, but it is nevertheless only the first peak of the evening in San Francisco. The sequence of material illustrates archivist David Lemieux's observations in the liner notes well: at the end of a year following vacation, the group sounds vibrant on tunes of recent vintage, such as "Scarlet Begonias, and chestnuts to be like "Not Fade Away remain fresh.
This wide range of Grateful Dead history contains its share of surprises, too. Some songs are radically rearranged, like the propulsive up-tempo romp through "Eyes of the World, or the loving deliberation with which the group graces "Around and Around. In addition, all the musicians play their respective roles effectively; Weir's rhythm guitar work is particularly muscular on "Help on the Way and "Slipknot. The drums that segue from the latter illustrate how Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart created percussive intricacy instead of relying on bombast.
Throughout these three-plus hours, the Dead continually pivot around the mammoth sound of Phil Lesh's bass and, equally importantly, derive inspiration from the vigor of guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia. The latter's gusto as he sings "Wharf Rat is as notable as his abandon on "We Bid You Goodnight. The passion of his guitar playing is comparable throughout the stately elegiac "Morning Dew and a lilting "Uncle John's Band. While the late titular leader of this hallowed band had his off-years as the next decade came and went, here he sounds every bit the icon.
Live at the Cow Palace boasts full, streamlined sound. Jeffrey Norman's HDCD mastering from the thirty-year old recording by Bob Mathews and Betty Cantor-Jackson reveals many nuances (like Keith Godchaux's barrelhouse piano), and the Tim Truman artwork that adorns the triple-fold digipak is worth checking out. As a result, discovering the mariachi motif of "Good Lovin' is as likely to bring a smile as noticing the lightning bolt tattoos adorning the bovine figures on the inside cover. Good ol' Grateful Dead indeed.
Personnel: Jerry Garcia: lead guitar and vocals; Donna Godchaux: vocals; Keith Godchaux: piano; Mickey Hart: drums; Bill
Kreutzmann: drums; Phil Lesh: electric bass, vocals; Bob Weir: rhythm guitar, vocals.