For the first selection from the Terrapin Vault comes a performance from the much loved year of 1977. In May of ’77, shortly after playing the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, the Grateful Dead rolled into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. It had been just over a year since Lynyrd Skynyrd released a live album recorded at the same venue and with this being the Grateful Dead’s first appearance here, we wonder if the Fox Theatre was ready for ‘the band beyond description.’ This tape captures the second night where the band seems to be happily settled in and fully enjoying themselves.
They start off quick and lively headed straight for the Promised Land that Chuck Berry had taught the world of years earlier. Jerry’s guitar is so hot and sweet, right from the first licks that you can almost hear Chuck himself in the background growling “oohhhhweeeee”. Keith’s fingers move the keys to quickly encourage Garcia, while Bobby’s voice shines brightly in the center.
After a short break for tuning, Garcia slows the band down with a long, time-bending Sugaree, reminding the audience that they purchased tickets for the long show. The sweet, poignant sounds of Jerry’s first words sends smiles all over our faces. The band is tight, carefully listening to one another as they meticulously move through the song, winding and bending our head, Jerry’s guitar leads our mind up a ladder of questions in futile attempt to discover “Who is Sugaree?”
Suddenly as if the transport through time has ended we are in the middle of El Paso, probably our favorite Bob Weir cowboy song. Bob’s voice is great here as he tells this tragic tale from Marty Robbins. Does anyone else ever feel like when Jerry sings backup for Bobby that he is actually guiding him? The spiraling sounds from Garcia’s guitar accent the story making it somehow totally believable.
The band runs into some troubles with sound and gets caught in some dead air. Back then when there was dead air Bob would start talking or telling jokes. This time he informs us that that he read in his almanac that today is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. It’s nice of him to take a moment like that while everyone else is trying to figure out what is wrong with the sound.
Jerry follows with one of his most beautiful love ballads of all time – Peggy-O. Sweet, simple and it sounds incredible. The short solos are heavenly.
By this point it’s evident the band has their magic with them tonight and that it’s going to be special. Looks Like Rain stays with the theme of love, a proper fit for the city they call Hotlanta. Donna lets us know she is here by singing a little backup.
There are some more tuning difficulties and this time the drummers and Phil have a little fun before the band launches into a soulful Row Jimmy. Garcia is really beginning to search the space for the soulful sounds of peace, pushing the limits of what the ear can comprehend.
Now it is the drummers who have something not quite just exactly right and again its Bob’s job to let us know as they all tune in and turn on. He dedicates the next song to the Red Chinese. After much ado, the band breaks into a raucous Passenger with Bobby and Donna singing together in sync like only they can.
Another break for tuning, this time it’s Jerry wanting everything just exactly perfect. The crowd is clearly becoming impatient with the awkward breaks. Slowly they walk into Loser. Jerry is captivating, convincing us that he will win the next hand and when it is his turn to solo he goes all in, hitting all the hard notes, patiently, allowing them each space to breathe.
They finish the set off with a nice take on Martha and the Vandals Dancin’ in the Streets anchored by the four armed drumming monster and Phil Lesh. The dancy groove moves from the center of the body out through the extremities and carries the audience through the set break.
Set two opens up with one of the now classic Grateful Dead games to create space for the people up front. This time Bobby leads the audience through some strange directions before the drums immediately announce a different tone to the set by powering into the traditionally arranged Samson & Delilah. Prior to his death, Rev. Gary Davis was giving private guitar lessons to Bob Weir and it is great to see the Dead incorporate this song. After the crazy Buffalo winter of 1977, we couldn’t wait for the Grateful Dead to release their new album. Here was an early preview to half of it to open up the second set.
Keith carries the band through Ramble On Rose while Donna and Jerry harmonize. Until this point Phil seems less prominent in the mix, but as Jerry solos he really bends the music to allow Jerry room to dance. Throughout the rest of the song his voice is very spirited.
A few quick tunings and Weir counts off to the funky beat of Estimated Prophet. Bobby sounds just loose enough to sing this with that right groove but not yet at the point where he’s forgetting lyrics. California! It’s hard to sit still as they really get into it here. Jerry is really pushing the limits with the pedal, warping the waves of sound amongst the other instruments like a peddle bounces off rocks as it travels downstream.
Here it is. The reason we are all here – Quite literally in this case. While California might be the land we all dream of, whether we climb, rise or fall, we all get to Terrapin sooner or later. The album hadn’t been released at the time of this show so no one in Georgia had heard this masterpiece yet. We couldn’t believe our ears the first time we heard it and its hard to imagine all the emotions of the crowd as they traversed this sonic journey for the first time. Jerry sounds like he is telling some secretive, sincere tale from some distant time that’s only to be understood by those of us on the bus. This is only the 14th Terrapin Station ever played. It’s not the best version ever, but it’s good and its nice to hear them exploring segments of the suite right in front of our ears. And the long, strange trip begins.
Seamlessly Bobby directs them into Playin’ in the Band. It’s fast! Some kind of crazed, psychedelic jazz rock – Hip, free, loose and tight. There’s something, maybe in Keith’s creeping keys, that makes you want to listen to it again. Phil takes control of the Monster Drummer and steers the ship fiercely into the dark unknown. We imagine a big Chessire Cat grin come across his whole face. As waves of sound flutter against the thundering rhythm, chaos hints at creating form. They wrestle with the ultimate forces of light and darkness through the depths of Jazz and roots of Blues with a cowbell leading the way for a moment. Finally they find themselves amongst the familiar chords of Uncle John’s Band.
The assuming Hippy Anthem that introduced the coded language of “Are you kind?” Are they Uncle John’s Band? Garcia really makes us wonder who Uncle John’s Band is and where we could go to hear them as he solos flawlessly over the rest of the band. Where does the time go as they explore the deepest depths of space? The subtle beauty of imagery this song evokes bring tears to our eyes. Are they are off playing with themes, allowing the instruments to play the players wondering where the sounds will take them.
This transitions into a fast, thundering Drums that is filled with quick kit and percussion combos. The conversation is intense, rife with double rhythms as they race to get in the final word. The race tumbles into a soft, spinning Wheel that achieves a crisp clarity.
Then as the music draws to a lull, a China Doll emerges. The band delicately guides the thread and as Garcia shares his sweet story with us, he is really letting us know that the show must end soon. His comforting voice draws us back towards reality. Strange waves of sound surround us as we traverse the void between the show and the ride home (the quiet of the ending). Before the gap is fully closed, a small ray of sound seeps through as the final chords of the Playin’ in the Band Reprise, reminding us all of what we would rather be doing.
And that’s it! The lights turn on. No encore. We are left wiping the music off, wondering what just happened.
Here is a link to a recorded version of the show courtesy of the Internet Archive.