Friday, February 3, 1978
Dane County Coliseum – Madison, WI
Early 1978 marks a wonderful peak in the career of the Grateful Dead. Many folks like to say that 1977 didn’t really wrap up until the end of the Jan-Feb run in ’78. I’m not one of them. 1977 can have its own 365 days. 1978 deserves the credit for its early section of musical mastery. Even with Garcia battling laryngitis early on in January (which only made him play more intensely while not being able to sing at all), the first tours of 1978 are worth exploring in detail.
Looking at another stretch of shows that makes choosing one to review nearly impossible (including yet another great run at the Uptown Theater in Chicago), I’ve come back to an old favorite tape for its somewhat subdued, yet wickedly potent dose of phenomenal Grateful Dead music – February 3, 1978. The Dane County Coliseum was some sort of ignition point for this band. It’s hard to find bad shows played at this venue. Featured on Dick’s Picks 18, the highlights from this night make this pick one everyone should own. To add color and perspective, there is also an AUD of this show to enjoy. It’s not what we’d call A quality, but it fully succeeds in delivering the full spectrum of the power that was happening on this night. The deeper the music goes, the more the quality of the listening experience improves, and the music goes quite deep, to be sure.
While it’s set two that will receive most of my focus, I can’t help but call attention to the first set’s closer, The Music Never Stopped. After revisiting it for this review, I can’t believe this one hasn’t always stuck in my brain as one of the best ever. How could I have forgotten this? Why don’t all Deadheads hold other versions of this song up to 2/3/78 to judge their worthiness? Do not pass it up when you pull out this tape for a listen. And then, you’ll want to get right to the meat of the second set…
Estimated Prophet > Eyes Of The World > Playin' In The Band > The Wheel > Playin' In The Band
Estimated Prophet expands like we’ve found a veiled entrance to an underground cavern of ancient, untouched mystery. Slowly torches reveal a labyrinth of loosely coiled passages, all reflecting a soft shimmering glow of prism hued light off of flickering flames. The music is soaked, cool and dark, with a hypnotic power that is hard to see coming. The evening’s concert has slowly begun to evaporate around you, and before you’ve even noticed the shift, it’s already nearly gone, leaving you quite powerless to defend the music’s insistent pursuit toward waking your soul to its siren call. By the time the music begins blending into a rolling and shifting landscape, sounding more like a mellow Other One and hinting at the Eyes to come, we have found that our pulse, breath, and complete attention have synced into a collective presence with the music. Effortlessly, the music dissolves the cavern’s wet rocky canopy into sunlight, as if small fissures are allowing starlight to pass through causing the walls to liquidly evaporate like steam, and slowly fade away.
Eyes Of The World brings with it that buoyant joyfulness that gives off the distinct impression that the music is smiling broadly. Relaxed into the moment, Jerry rushes nothing. He runs through solo after solo, and just when you figure he’s stepping up to the microphone to sing, he flows back into another solo section, cart wheeling up mountain peaks again. In between each verse he triumphantly soars and delicately floats in a gorgeous interplay of sunlit peaks and valleys. Even at 16 minutes, the song seems to stretch out far longer, eventually leading up to the highpoint of the evening, Playin’ In The Band.
This Playin’>Wheel>Playin’ captures an enormous segment of quintessential Grateful Dead creativity, reaching well outside the bounds one can easily pin down as simply 1978 Dead. The Playin’ jam begins with Phil taking a relaxed solo over drums and whisper quiet instrumentation from the rest of the band. It’s as if the bass is strolling through a forest, gently kicking up swells of musical texture, like leaves in its wake. The haunting mystery of Estimated Prophet has returned to bring a hushed reverence to the musical experience. The band seems to be allowing their musical magic to reach its own deepest levels of inspiration. They force nothing, and the jamming that slowly begins taking form appears organically, as if born of the music itself, not from the individual members of the band. It courses into you, more than just music – the sweet magic of the Grateful Dead has fully opened its flower, its rich color and fragrance so strong as to wipe all other sensation away from your senses.
Formless grace seems the most apt description of the long jam that follows. Things aren’t veering aggressively away from the Playin’ theme, yet it has been left miles behind in the distance just the same. As this was the section of the band’s career which saw the formalization of Drums>Space as a fixture in the second set, it is worth noting that while the drummers reach a passage where they are musically calling for the rest of the band to give them room, it doesn’t happen. On the fingertips of small hand percussion the music continues to gently evolve into one intricate tapestry after another. Eventually, the musical beat slips away, as the band coxes the gentle grace into a shifting, tilting landscape of Space. Beware a somewhat brutal tape flip edit as this Space gets started. It’s a bump in the road that quickly passes and leaves you deeply immersed in a pulsing sea of light and color. Throughout this passage, The Wheel is hinting its way into being, and eventually we come out on the other side into the song proper.
The Wheel tends to always strike me as a pop song that someone dosed heavily with LSD, driving it into a realm beyond mere hallucinations to a pure resonance with all things – an awakened spiritual grace tinged with a quiet peaceful knowing. It wears psychedelia like a flowing garment on a body of spiritual serenity. That there is a real song going on binds this inner world quality with a more tangible form. The song’s lyrics and musical structure call us into the same pure church-like setting as Attics Of My Life, or Brokedown Palace. This is a song you often “attend” more so than simply hear. The exit jam embodies a pure distillation of the ocean of grace that has been going on for over a half hour now. It is absolute Grateful Dead music, undeniably marked with the personal expression of the collective musical muse underlying the band’s creative energy. Gently, and with the hands of a loving parent, the music settles us back into Playin’ In The Band, and the set wraps up there.