Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead – Winterland- December 30, 1977 – ‘Shotgun Ragtime Band’

by | Dec 30, 2020 | 0 comments

One day removed from one of the most famed Grateful Dead
performances in history, December 30, 1977 contains a mysterious grace all of
its own. The Grateful Dead were known for legendary New Year’s runs throughout
their history and the year 1977 was one of the best. As previously stated, the
concert from December the 29
th is legendary in ‘Deadhead’ circles
not only of the return of ‘China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider’, but for the
amazing musical conversations that took place on the stage that evening. That
concert was a must have in original tapers circles and was later immortalized
officially on
Dick’s Picks Volume 10.  As a special bonus, Dick included a chunk of
the next night, December 30
th as filler. That particular evening is
the focus of this
Talk from the Rock Room
review.

I am listening to the circulating Charlie Miller soundboard which can be streamed at the Grateful Dead archive here. I will refer to the
official release of Dick’s Picks Volume
10
for the second set jam. The opening set is long and languid, opening
with a typically substantial Fall 1977 version of ‘Mississippi Half Step Uptown
Toodeloo’ and culminating with a hyper vegetating ‘Let It Grow’. Beginning with
the September 3, 1977 reading, the Fall 77 ‘1/2 Step’s’ just get better and
better through to the end of the year.  This one is no exception.

There are also crystalline versions of long slow Jerry classics like ‘Row Jimmy’ and ‘Peggy O’ to be enjoyed here. Typical to this era both of these songs
are highlighted by nuanced Garcia vocals and attentive playing. One hesitates
to say, ‘typical of the era’, but during the Fall of 1977 the Grateful Dead’s
standard of playing was so strong even the most basic set list can stun even
the most practiced and jaded listener.  Lesh is creative, Garcia positively sings
through his strings and the two drummers play as one. Weir and Godchaux are
peaking for one final golden era with the famed 1970’s line up.

Highlights of the first set include the aforementioned as
well as a shit kicking ‘Dire Wolf’ with a lyrical Garcia solo and a very aggressive
‘Passenger’. The drummers are epically feisty on this Winterland evening. The
jittery set closing “Let It Grow’ reaches full bloom only to be cut off by Weir
just a bit early. The final closing jam, while not quite October 11, 1977 does
have a flood of Garcia’s scrubbing bubbles. The set rises to reach a well-timed
conclusion.

The jamming in the second set is wonderfully West coast,
patient and beautifully played. The big musical segment is of enough note that
as previously stated, it was included as bonus audio on the aforementioned Dick’s Picks Volume 10. The set begins
with a sturdy ‘Samson’ and a cool down ‘Ship of Fools’ before the musical suite
of the evening commences. A typically well played ‘Estimated Prophet’ begins the
journey. By the winter 78 tour ‘Estimated’ will have really started to go some
crazy places, and this version is the start of the song revealing new avenues
of improv for the band. The outro jam here starts off plodding, then probing but
by the last minute Garcia begins to discover a sweet dissonance. Both he, Weir
and Lesh begin to feel something worth chasing for the final minute with unique
heavy playing. Slurpy and sticky Garcia Mutron playing is the obvious
highlight. Weir chunks out with off beat chording, Jerry misses steps on
purpose running hot on Weir’s tail. While not picture perfect, the segue into ‘Eyes’ is beautifully developed.  ‘Eyes of the World’ is a
long narcotic version with some of the most delectable Garcia vocals of the
era. A+

You can feel the mist of inspiration descend upon the stage
as ‘Eyes’ begins to dissipate following the ‘fade out’ riffing. Lesh growls
some gentle feedback blasts while signaling a syncopated groove which begins to
develop around Garcia’s circular runs. The drummers click out an excitable
groove using rims shots and cymbal clicks, meshing into an improvised teletype.
A busy and floral jam now surfaces as Lesh and Garcia propel the major key groove forward. Weir plucks out an answer and he and Godchaux join the drummers in
creating an engaging rhythm. Garcia reveals the axis and begins to weave his
brassy tone with perfectly placed fretwork. Everyone circles the fire encouraging
the flames.

The band has achieved lift off and the crowd has jumped on
the back for the ride. At around the fourteen minute mark, Garcia and Godchaux
are in perfect simpatico. Lesh is pulsing, pushing and pulling with Hart’s bass
drum churning the groove. Around fifteen minutes, Kreutzmann starts to increase
the heat with some snare drum snaps before Garcia gently pumps the breaks and
lands the intro into ‘St. Stephen’. A fine piece of improv and one of the best jams of the Fall.

In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion, this is the best
‘Stephen’ of the year and one of the finest of the post retirement Dead era.
Thunder drums and sprawling Garcia strumming are only part of the madness of the
reading. A heavy stepping rendition, after disposing with the lyrics at close
to six minutes the band cracks the egg with percussive piano and ringing Garcia
notes. Per their usual practice the mid-section of the song rolls and boils
with dynamic intensity. Weir signals the drummers to pick up the pace and the
band gaining their footing, begin to crest the musical wave. The group is now
delicately balanced on the precipice in their preparation to return to the main
Stephen riff. The tension increases with each Garcia strum until Hart signals a
full band return to the ‘Stephen’ theme. Success.

Photo By Bob Minkin

A small stumble during the return verse is forgiven as the
band has just presented the New Year’s eve,  crowd with a gift that will
last forever. The concluding ‘Stephen’ leads into a slam banging version of ‘Sugar
Magnolia’. Garcia bends strings of the neck while the band constructs a joyous
and buoyant version of the oft-played show closer. Like the rest of the music preceding
it, this one is a good un. Rock star Bobby goads the band into an epic all night
reading. The band obviously knew they knocked it out of the park as they give
Winterland a double encore of ‘U.S. Blues’ followed by ‘Good Lovin’. The band is just not
running on inertia from the December 29th blow out, but creating a
brand new musical experience. On Winterland this particular evening, ‘something new was waiting to be
born’ and the group answered the clarion call.

December 30, 1977 is another unique chapter in a huge
volume of stellar playing maintained by the Grateful Dead in the late 1970’s.
Enjoy the entire evening as you would study a text or watch a film. Dig
right into the second set magic if you choose. Regardless of how you listen there is a
vast soundscape of Grateful Dead to enjoy, just point at a calendar and spin. Just make sure you don’t forget late 1977 when the Dead were once again reaching and surpassing a musical peak.

 

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