The 41 shows the Grateful Dead played in 1976 constituted a kind of shakedown cruise for the band, which had gone on hiatus from live performing in October 1974 and given only four concerts during 1975. In the spring of 1976, they suddenly reappeared with a film, The Grateful Dead Movie, and a live album, Steal Your Face, and between June 3 and October 15 they toured the U.S. They then woodshedded for four and a half months before re-emerging again in late February 1977, having recorded a new studio album, Terrapin Station. The only interruption in those efforts came with the New Year's Eve show they played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, chronicled here, their first such seasonal appearance in four years. The three-plus-hour performance thus marks the closing of a relatively brief chapter in the Dead's history. Despite the group's extensive program of releases of vintage live material since its formal disbandment in 1995, the 1976 shows have been nearly ignored, the major exception being Dick's Picks, Vol. 33, taken from two concerts at Oakland Coliseum Stadium in October. Given the tentative nature of this period, it's easy to see why. And there was a specific reason that the New Year's Eve show wasn't released until now; it had been broadcast live on local radio, and thus many Deadheads already had a perfectly good recording in their collections.
Nevertheless, Live at the Cow Palace: New Year's Eve 1976 is a welcome addition to the catalog. It has the quality of a summing up of what the Grateful Dead had been about up to this point, with songs drawn from 12 different group and solo albums, plus two songs that had not yet appeared on an LP. One of those is "Good Lovin'," the '60s hit for the Olympics and the Young Rascals, which the Dead had played frequently between 1969 and 1972, but not much since; it would appear on Shakedown Street in 1978. The other is the traditional song "Samson & Delilah" (aka "If I Had My Way"), a song the Dead had begun playing at their first 1976 show and performed nearly every night for the rest of the year; it was the only song to give a precursor to Terrapin Station, but, as a non-original, not much of one. Otherwise, this is a selection of familiar material, much of which dates from the 1969-1971 period, with such additions as "Scarlet Begonias" (from 1974's From the Mars Hotel) and "Help on the Way"/"Slipknot!" from 1975's Blues for Allah. (Observant Deadheads will note that this is one of the rare occasions when this medley does not include "Franklin's Tower.") As Dead performances go, this one might best be described as relaxed. The musicians sound comfortable with each other, not to the point of just going through the motions, but without ever working up to any real excitement, either. The best moments, as is often true of a Grateful Dead concert, are found in the spacy improvisations, particularly in some of the interplay during the 23-minute "Playing in the Band" that concludes the first set and the first disc. This may not be the album a Deadhead would want to use to introduce a neophyte to the band, but it is, as that fan might put it, "the good ol' Grateful Dead," reliable and consistent, in a performance that is more about the end of an old era than the beginning of a new one.