I've always maintained that the Grateful Dead were an electric jug band with more in common musically with Jim Kweskin than Jimi Hendrix. On the new three CD set Live at the Cow Palace – New Year's Eve 1976 you can hear this ultimate jam band at their loosest-tightest best. Ever since the Dead's original keyboard player, Pigpen, passed away this position was been filled by a succession of musicians. On this recording the husband/wife duo Keith and Donna Godchaux held down the keyboards and background vocals positions. The rest of the band is the same as it ever was – Jerry Garcia on guitar and vocals, Bob Weir on guitar and vocals, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann on drums and percussion.
To be considered any kind of a serious deadhead you've got to have at least 100 hours of bootleg recordings from various Dead concerts. Even I have some purloined copies of early live concerts in my tape library. One problem with many of these early recordings is they sound really bad. Live at the Cow Palace – New Year's Eve 1976 was originally broadcast over San Francisco's KSAN to celebrate New Year's Eve. This is probably the best-sounding early live Grateful Dead concert I've ever heard, even better than Live Dead. The balance between the guitars, bass, drums, and vocals is nearly perfect. Given the highly improvisational nature of the Grateful Dead's live songs, trying to get the balances right, even with a sixteen-track tape recorder, is nearly impossible, but on Live at the Cow Palace – New Year's Eve 1976 recording engineers Bob Mathews and Betty Cantor Jackson and mixer Jeffrey Norman work wonders.
According to the liner notes, the Grateful Dead began this concert "somewhere after ten" and ended "close to three hours into the new year." In other words, this was a typically juggernaut-long Dead concert. The set-list included Grateful Dead standards "Bertha," "Sugar Magnolia," "Good Lovin'" "Not Fade Away," "Uncle John's Band," "Deal," "Playing in the Band," and "One More Saturday Night" as well as somewhat more obscure numbers from the period "Samson and Delilah," "Slipnot," and "Help on the Way." Like any Grateful Dead concert moments of inspired brilliance are interspersed among the many minutes of directionless noodling. That just goes with the territory. True fans know that the time spent waiting for the music to take off, phoenix-like, is all part of the journey.
To paraphrase a well-known critic of yore, "If you like this sort of thing, you are going to love this."