Jerry Garcia - lead guitar, vocals; Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, organ, percussion; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Bill Kruetzman - drums; Ken Kesey - PA announcements; Various Merry Pranksters - roving microphone banter
As 1966 began, San Francisco was rapidly becoming the epicenter of a cultural and musical shift that would impact the world. Dance hall promoters like Bill Graham and Chet Helms were in the early stages of opening venues where local bands could perform for the throngs of young people looking to dance socialize and listen to live music. Local writer Ken Kesey and his friends (known as The Merry Pranksters) were doing the same on a smaller scale, but adding high quality LSD to the mix, which was then still legal and readily available. As Kesey's parties, or "Acid Tests" as they were called, began attracting more and more adventurous people, it was inevitable that The Merry Pranksters parties would merge with local dance hall venues, which is exactly what happened on January 8, 1966.
On that night The Pranksters and their Acid Test house band, The Grateful Dead, descended on Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium, loading in piles of sound equipment, projectors and strobe lights and ready to turn attendees on to LSD while subjecting them to sensory bombardment. The band had literally just become The Grateful Dead, having recently changed their name from The Warlocks, and was just one component of the overall experience. Ken Kesey, strategically overseeing everything, was also plugged in to the P.A. system and could ramble stream-of-consciousness commentary over the proceedings. Various Pranksters were also equipped with roving microphones, which could be fed in and out at any time. Mass free-form creativity while under the influence was the goal. Often it was utter chaos, sometimes it was divinely inspired and for the vast majority of attendees, it was incredibly liberating to "freak freely" with others who felt the same.
While no mere audio recording could ever capture an Acid Test experience, this one does manage to capture some of the spontaneous free-formlessness and remains one of the earliest (if not the earliest) examples of a live Grateful Dead recording, when they were essentially still a cover band playing for dancers.
The recording begins with the proceedings just getting underway and not surprisingly, plenty of chaos onstage. As The Grateful Dead attempt to get the stage powered up, Captain Ken Kesey is rambling away, welcoming attendees to tonight's journey. After several minutes of embracing absurdity, The Grateful Dead begin the slow blues of "I'm A King Bee," sounding not too different from the early Rolling Stones, but more hypnotic. Although primitive, many of the elements of the prototype San Francisco sound are in place, from Garcia's banjo style electric guitar picking and his use of twang bar to end his riff lines to Pigpen's largely improvised vocal style. Garcia and Pigpen team up on lead vocals for the next number, a bouncy cover of "I'm A Hog For You Baby," which also includes Kesey interjecting Prankster style public service announcements over the band. Although occasionally tempo-challenged, up to this point drummer Bill Kruetzman comes across as the most accomplished musician here and when others drift off, he and Phil Lesh help keep things somewhat anchored.
The musical highlight of this recording follows as The Grateful Dead play a solid 17-minute sequence consisting of Pigpen's "Caution" segueing directly into "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Here one can hear the promise of this band and everyone turns in a respectable performance, particularly Pigpen and Garcia, who were clearly leading the way. "Caution" soon becomes a driving hyper-jam, featuring a great early example of Garcia's shredding technique. The "Death Don't Have No Mercy" that follows is downright spooky, thanks in no small part to Pigpen's organ work, which rarely gets much mention. With the band cranking away about nine minutes in, suddenly the police pull the plug!
Kesey, not one to miss an opportunity for increasing the absurdity, announces "The chief security agent has taken over and has pulled the plug on the band! Completely nullifying the engines!" Several other roving microphones are also heard, including what sounds like an instantaneous tape loop of a police officer saying "Clear the house! The dance is over!" Many humorous and sarcastic comments are heard eminating from the stage as well as the room, while Bob Weir begins baiting the cops with a spontaneous monologue. As the police converge on the stage, several people begin belting out a hideously off-key rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," just to needle the police a little more. Amidst grumbling and noise, the tape runs out with a commentary from Jerry Garcia, who exclaims, "In the end, its nothing but mindless chaos. Good old mindless chaos, hassling, ever hassling..."