Rivaling the spring of 1972 as the most-plundered season in the Grateful Dead's live catalog, the spring of 1977 found the Dead playing at their platonic best. It was during that period that the Dead struck what, for many, remains the perfect balance of tightness and energy of performance, without too much undue experimentation, before Jerry Garcia's focus dissipated into drug addiction in the years immediately following. For listeners wary of long "Dark Star"/"Playing in the Band" excursions or endless drum jams of the early years and the embattled arena behemoths of the 1980s, 1977 provides a safe middle ground (and a good starting point for new listeners). It was also a show previously uncirculated in soundboard form by the Deadheads, recorded by renowned Dead engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson. To that end, the band's April 30th show at the Palladium -- the first release in their downloads series, and the sixth extended release from the spring of 1977, including one box set -- has an advantage on the much revered show recorded in Ithaca on May 8th: an actual open-ended jam. A 15-minute "Not Fade Away" veers into deep, melodic abstraction before languidly seguing into Garcia's heart-wrenching ballad "Stella Blue." Though not as quiet as some readings of the tune -- by the Dead's standards, this version is downright chipper, spiraling gracefully back into the "St. Stephen" ending -- the spring of 1977 was a fine time for Garcia ballads, and this release has several. In the first set, there is Garcia's stunning slow-burn staple "Peggy-O" and -- in the second -- the newly slowed-down version of "Friend of the Devil," premiered after the band's 1974-1976 hiatus. The third virtual disc also comes with a 14-minute bonus version of "Sugaree," recorded a night earlier, with Keith Godchaux's organ mixed with odd prominence. For the most part, though, the band keep the energy high, and the spring of 1977 was defined by the then-new combo of "Scarlet Begonias" into "Fire on the Mountain." The Palladium show is no exception, and features a long, meandering version to open the set, punctuated by the even-lamented-by-many-Deadheads moans of Donna Jean Godchaux. Other high-energy jams include the recently revived Rascals cover "Good Lovin'" sung by Bob Weir (which probably should have been left with the memory of its former GD vocalist, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan), Weir's new oddball 7/4 reggae epic "Estimated Prophet," and Garcia's magisterial "Terrapin Station," receiving its first Manhattan airing as the encore. Combined with the adventurously punchy 30-minute "St. Stephen" > "Not Fade Away" > "Stella Blue" > "St. Stephen" suite, the first volume of the Dead's download series is totally solid, though decidedly not exceptional.
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AllMusic Review by Jesse Jarnow