Dead & Co. to play benefit at Barton Hall, honoring legendary ’77 show
By David Nutt, Cornell Chronicle
The Dead are coming back to Barton Hall.
Exactly 46 years since they trucked into Cornell and delivered one of the most iconic and beloved performances of their long, strange career, remaining members of the Grateful Dead will return, as Dead & Company, to play a benefit concert in Barton Hall on May 8 as part of the band’s final tour.
“Cornell 1977 holds a special place in Grateful Dead lore. That magical night lives forever and will always link Cornell and the Grateful Dead,” said drummer Mickey Hart. “On that fateful night in 1977, my wife Caryl was a student at Cornell but missed that performance. Many twists and turns later, we wind up once again at Cornell to celebrate that 1977 performance with a benefit concert at Barton Hall. If anyone finds some of my old brain cells that I lost back in ’77 in Barton Hall, please advise.”
The concert – brought to campus by Alumni Affairs and Development – will be a fundraiser for Cornell’s 2030 Project, to develop and accelerate tangible solutions to climate change, and MusiCares, a nonprofit established in 1989 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to support the health and welfare of music industry professionals.
“The legacy of the 5/8/77 show is well-known to fans around the world. That Dead & Co. would come back to Cornell and play at Barton Hall, and do so while supporting the Cornell 2030 Project and MusiCares on their farewell tour, is truly special,” said Rob Klein ’97, an ILR major and a longtime fan of the Grateful Dead and Dead & Company, who was instrumental in organizing the upcoming show via his professional networks in the sports media entertainment industry.
Barton Hall, with around 4,800 seats, is far smaller than the 40,000-seat stadiums and amphitheaters the band will play on its final tour, and demand for the show is expected to far outstrip supply. Discounted tickets for students and tickets for alumni and staff will be released via lottery. More information about tickets can be found at www.cornell23.com.
May 8, 1977, has become a legendary moment in Grateful Dead mythology. The show spawned numerous bootlegs, an official release, a book, conspiracy theories and endless debate by diehard Deadheads. But it wasn’t always that way.
At the time, the Grateful Dead was enjoying a period of rejuvenation following a two-year touring hiatus and the death of member keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in 1973. They were touring in support of their soon-to-be-released ninth studio album, “Terrapin Station.”
The band was brought to campus by the Cornell Concert Commission, following years of money-losing performances that put the student-run organization roughly $100,000 in debt.
A touring juggernaut that played nearly 2,300 concerts during its 30-year career, the Grateful Dead blended elements of folk, rock, blues, jazz, country and psychedelia, with dual drummers and a joyful, experimental spirit that led them to stretch out their songs and improvise freely, making every live performance an adventure, and utterly unique. By the late-’70s, the Grateful Dead had outlived most of their ’60s peers from the psychedelic era. They were able to keep on truckin’ thanks to their vast community of “deadicated” fans.
“One of the interesting things about this Grateful Dead show is that by the time they’re playing here in ’77, they’re more than a decade old, so to have them play a three-hour show is remarkable, in part because they’re doing something that is long gone from what the rock’n’roll landscape was at that moment,” said Judith Peraino, professor of music in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I think it’s wonderful and beautiful that they want to come back to Cornell and re-create a moment or commemorate a magical experience for themselves as much as for the audience.”
Many alumni have vivid memories about the band’s visit, from helping cook for the Dead’s roadies to seeing keyboard player Keith Godchaux asleep on a folding table backstage before the show. The band’s performance that night – 19 songs played over two sets, with some numbers sprawling past the 15-minute mark – was tight and inspired, including staples such as “Saint Stephen” and “Morning Dew” while skipping classics “Truckin’” and “Dark Star.” The songs flowed seamlessly, contributing to the sensory envelopment that was the Dead’s stock in trade.
The specialness of the show was heightened by a freak May snowstorm that arrived that day, which happened to be Mother’s Day.
Over the next two decades, the Barton Hall show developed a reputation as one of the Grateful Dead’s greatest gigs, thanks to the band’s laissez-faire policy – what guitarist and singer Bob Weir once called “benign neglect” – about bootlegs. While most performers, record labels and venues staunchly tried to prevent audience members from recording shows, the Grateful Dead allowed it. The trading of cassettes, many of fluctuating quality, became a crucial part of Deadhead fandom, as well as the Barton Hall show’s legacy.
The show even became a wry punchline, with Weir once joking the show never happened, riffing on a conspiracy theory among some fans that 5/8/77 was actually a CIA mind-control experiment.
Of the numerous bootlegs of 5/8/77 that circulated for years, one stood out: a high-quality soundboard recording made by the band’s audio engineer, Betty Cantor-Jackson. This version captured, in crystalline detail, the nuances of the individual instruments as well as the cumulative energy and ambience of the full band experience – ironically while they were playing in a space that was designed to be a drill hall for the Department of Military Science and was not exactly acclaimed for its acoustical properties.
“It’s everything you want all the other bootlegs to sound like, because bootlegs are always frustrating. You can’t hear the delicacy of the work,” Peraino said. “One reason why this show is so legendary, perhaps, is the sound that we’re able to experience with it, the intimacy of the details that we can hear without the interference of crowd noise. It’s just so much more vibrant.”
The Grateful Dead played Barton Hall again in 1980 and ’81, but the ’77 show is the one that became mythic. It has been the subject of a book, “Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead Show at Barton Hall,” a mini-documentary and endless debate by fans. Readers of the New York Times voted Barton ’77 the best Dead show of all time in an April 2009 online poll.
A recording of the performance was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. In 2017, Rhino Records officially released the so-called “Betty Boards” on compact disc, LP and digitally.
“The 1977 show was great in part due to the intimate setting at Barton Hall,” Klein said. “The intent is to re-create this magic for students and the broader university community once again.”