From its start, author Peter Conners acknowledges the idea that one single rock concert generating enough material for an entire book seems, on its face, an ambitious task. Possibly, he writes, even extreme.
Then again, The Grateful Dead’s appearance at Cornell’s Barton Hall back in ’77 was no ordinary concert.
What happened May 8 that year — forever immortalized as “Grateful Dead Day” in the City of Ithaca — wasn’t simply one of the greatest shows the Dead ever played. In fact, whether the show was the best the band had ever played is still a topic of some debate among the most diehard members of the fan base. Some have even called it an overrated performance in the band’s history, a performance largely propped up by the mythology surrounding it.
Understanding of this myth is the focus of Conners’ latest book, Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall, published through Cornell University Press. Through 179 quick-reading pages, Conners explores not only the experience of that Barton Hall show through the eyes of those who attended, but he also explores the stories of the people involved in its happening: a study of the band itself during that point in time and in explaining the greater social implication of the show itself.
Conners takes a deep dive into the social and cultural aspects of the Dead universe — from the taping subculture among its fan base to the band’s style of touring and performing — which leant itself to the immortality of that night’s performance. Cornell ‘77 is not simply a drawn-out review of a great concert: it is a deep analysis of why, even today, the show has maintained its status well beyond the borders of Ithaca 40 years later.
Conners, a self-professed Deadhead and author of numerous tomes on music and the counterculture, approaches his subject with a reverent honesty. The book is as much a tribute as it is an anthropological survey of Grateful Dead culture and a true assessment of where the band was at that point in its history, taking into account not only the group’s mindset at the time but also where it stood creatively in ’77.
Beginning with a chapter tying the sonic experiments of Ken Kesey’s acid tests to the obsessive technicality of the Grateful Dead’s “taper” fan base, Conners, through his already extensive background on the social mechanics of the Grateful Dead fandom, builds a level of context for his analysis of the show. By its end, readers understand exactly why that Barton Hall show gained a certain mythology throughout the years. The show might not have been the greatest the band ever played, but among a fandom where taping shows fuelled the flames of obsession, the act of capturing lightning in a bottle with such clarity is what elevated the status of the show to the very top of Deadhead esteem.
But the book is not simply an analysis of the cultural impact of the Barton Hall show. Through more than two-dozen interviews (including the likes of Ithaca Times columnist Stephen P. Burke, who is quoted a considerable amount for his role in the Cornell Concert Commission), Conners reaches into the sense of devotion surrounding the people who made that show happen. These interviews are an indicator of not just who enjoyed the music, but the degree to which they embodied the attitude of the band. Conners does an effective job capturing the mood of the evening and the spirit of both the traveling fans and Cornell’s student body at the time.
Conners brings readers into the booming confines of Barton Hall, his writings on the performance itself keeping pace with the rhythm and fever of the band’s romping set list for the evening. The list is composed of the “Cowboy Bob” sampler of the Bakersfield sound to the latest from Terrapin Station, which came out that same year. Whilst reading, the audience can almost hear the temper of each individual piece through Conners’ analysis and critique of the songs, something that likely came from the countless times he listened to the show while writing the book. Such an approach lends itself to some beautiful literary passages, from the imagery of apocalyptic bump and grind evoked in Fire On The Mountain, to the “ancient fancy” evoked in the band’s epic rendition of Morning Dew. Conners writes with an uncommon level of passion: a place not only of authority and command of the subject matter but one of slack-jawed admiration, earned only through a deep, analytical understanding of the forces at work behind each song.
Though Conners had his doubts at first, there is much that has been said about the Grateful Dead’s show at Barton Hall that night. In his meticulous account, Conners manages to say it all. •