Evolution and progress are two elements of the Grateful Dead experience that fascinate me. The way a song could metamorphose over the course of years is amazing. Some songs hit their peak in a given era, and I think a lot of people would probably agree that Sugaree hit its stride in 1977.
That may be all well and good, but how did Sugaree get to that sweet spot in 1977? That question is at the root of this selection. Here we are a good 6-7 months prior to the fabled spring 1977 tour and this was the shape Sugaree was in. It still clocks in at over 10 minutes, but it’s not the Homeric epic it would become in a few short months. Almost overnight, it would seem, the song transformed into something completely new.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the Dead’s musical alembic achieved such a feat. For reference check out the evolution of Playing In The Band over the course of the Europe ’72 tour. If you want to hear a song grow up in a heartbeat, that’s the best example out there.
Sugaree was a constant presence in the Dead’s repertoire since being introduced in 1971. But here is it in 1976, right on the cusp of something truly special.
Clearly the crowd is still pumped from the preceding Let It Grow as you can hear them roaring as the song starts. The drums, notably the cymbals, are mixed higher here and you get a sneak peek at what Billy and Mickey are up to here. Of course, the highlight of Sugaree is Jerry’s solo, or should I say solos? There’s not the power of the 1977 vintage Sugaree here, but there is a sense of expediency that is undeniable. The second solo passage Jerry plays a line that is almost sing-song-esque. This then leads into some spirited wandering in the wilderness only to come out into the third verse. The instrumental breaks are still relatively short, comparatively. Note that Keith throws in some tasty runs of his own during the third verse. In fact, the third instrumental section starts off with Keith to an extent, almost like Jerry wasn’t quite ready so Keith fills in for a few measures. By this point Jerry has his sea legs and the notes come faster. He has a goal in sight and sets off for it. Keith continues to keep pace with Jerry and really pushes him further and further. The fourth verse continues at the brisker pace that has been established. There is no more extended instrumental passage at this point, and the song ends after several runs through the chorus. All good things in all good time as Bobby announces their set break.