Punk may have reared its angry head in England during 1977, and bands like Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones may have made important records for major labels that year, but the Grateful Dead never got the message that change was in the air. And thank goodness. The Dead were at a peak in terms of creativity. In the spring of that year they undertook one of their most memorable tours, and recorded an album that signified a turning point in their compositional and creative development: Terrapin Station, which was released in July. To Terrapin: Hartford '77 is a triple-disc set issued by Rhino. It offers a snapshot of the Dead in Connecticut on the last night of a 26-city tour. The band -- Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Keith and Donna Godchaux -- had begun to spiral into ever longer explorations based on compositions that in themselves were ever more adventurous. Two of the three tunes on this set from the forthcoming Terrapin Station are sprawling yet intricate jams -- Weir and John Barlow's "Estimated Prophet" (which showcased the embrace of reggae as another Dead vehicle for exploration) and Garcia and Robert Hunter's "Terrapin Station" were over 11 minutes in length, and contained in a suite that includes another 11-minute monster: a version of "Playing in the Band" that acts as an unusual hinge piece. Lesh and Peter Monk's brief rocker "Passenger" offered a different view of the Dead: as a lean, tight unit capable of delivering precise, energetic, power-driven rockers -- check Garcia's wailing slide work on this one and the locked-in harmonies between Donna Godchaux and Weir. The version of the traditional gospel tune "Samson and Delilah" (made famous by the Reverend Gary Davis) that appears here and on the forthcoming album is over the top, and simply burns with Weir becoming, for one tune at least, a truly credible blues shouter with the drummers' popping breaks and rim shots off one another as Garcia solos in the pocket throughout.
Of course, the set features a slew of Dead classics as well. There are terrific performances of "Candyman," "Jack Straw," "Row Jimmy," a laid-back but knotty "Bertha," and a 20-minute "Sugaree" that may offer a vision of the band at its most drawn-out and ponderous, but tightly focused on subtleties nonetheless. "Tennessee Jed" clocks in at over nine minutes while a ten-minute "Wharf Rat" is transformed into something wholly other. The final cuts on this three-disc deluxe offering are wild versions of "One More Saturday Night" and a droll yet driving "U.S. Blues." However you slice it, whether taking in this set a disc at a time or powering through the entire show, this is one of those special dates of the Dead: one that's been sitting for far too long in the vaults. The Dead may have been in a commercial lull at this point, but they were so ON musically that they could do almost no wrong. Of course, other than Deadheads and jazz fans, not too many other music listeners were interested in taking in jams of this length, let alone such intricate focus. Indeed, this is one of those nights that the old dictum that "there's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert" was simply the truth in the best sense: what transpires here is simply magical, and no Deadhead -- or anyone even curious at this point -- should be without it. This is live rock & roll at its best, by a band that was soaring artistically.