Ron Pigpen McKernan - vocals, harmonica, organ, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass; Bill Kruetzman - drums; Mickey Hart - percussion; Guest: David Nelson - mandolin, vocals
Following several years of musical experimentation and exploration, the dawn of the 1970s would begin a period of transition for the Grateful Dead, where they would expand the range of their music and in doing so begin reaching a broader audience. The band's first album of the new decade, Workingman's Dead, and American Beauty, which would follow later in the year, would signal the beginning of lyricist Robert Hunter's most prolific and inspired era, where his writing took on a new focus and clarity. Likewise, the Dead's music was taking on a new focus and clarity, as they began consciously returning to their roots, embracing acoustic instrumentation and incorporating stylistic elements from the late 1950s/early 1960s folk, country, and blues revivals that initially inspired bandleaders, Jerry Garcia and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, to begin playing music together. This influx of new songs and expanded diversity of material led to a revamping of their live performances, which began featuring multiple sets, providing the musicians the opportunity to play in several configurations. Often billed as "An Evening With The Grateful Dead," their concerts were exactly that—a full evening of broad ranging music that often ran until the wee hours of the morning. For the first time, the group began performing live acoustic sets that showcased new material as well as the traditional style folk and blues favorites from their past. This was often followed by a set of country-flavored rock from Dead-family offshoot band New Riders Of The Purple Sage, in which Jerry Garcia was exploring the pedal steel guitar. The night would continue with one, or occasionally two, full-blown electric sets, where the band would often present newer material and more tightly arranged songs followed by material that facilitated improvisation and experimentation.
Many of the Dead's most inspired performances that year occurred at Fillmore East, where the New York City audience always embraced them. The group also enjoyed the Fillmore East for its crew and sound system, which at the time far surpassed every other rock venue in America. Indeed it was the only venue where the Dead didn't demand using their own sound equipment, making the overall working experience more comfortable. The Grateful Dead did several multi-night runs at Fillmore East over the course of the year and these performances remain some of the most diverse and impressive of their entire career. One such night occurred on May 15, 1970 where the band played both an early and late show. For Jerry Garcia, who was also a NRPS member at the time, these concerts would become marathons of endurance, with this night being an extreme example. Six full sets would be performed over the course of both concerts on this evening. Not only are the May 15th recordings crisp and clear, but the fact that these concerts fall directly between the recording sessions for the Dead's most beloved albums (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) and during a most prolific songwriting phase, make these performances essential listening.
The late show on this evening typifies the diversity of a 1970 Dead concert, beginning with an acoustic set packed with delightful surprises. This second acoustic set of the evening begins with a homage to one of Jerry Garcia's stylistic influences, Mississippi John Hurt, with Garcia's intricate and beautifully styled finger-picking on "Ballad Of Casey Jones." Not to be confused with the Garcia/Hunter song, "Casey Jones," this vintage folk narrative tells the tale of Illinois Central train engineer, John Luther "Casey" Jones, a local legend who had a trademark way of blowing the train's whistle and died in a well-publicized train wreck in 1900. Only performed twice within the context of a Dead concert, this would be its debut performance. Bob Weir next leads the way on a country flavored cover of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," a song first recorded by Wanda Jackson back in 1956 which had been resurrected by Linda Ronstadt the previous year. This song had been in the Dead's repertoire since the beginning, but had only recently been revived, as Weir began taking on a more prominent role within the band.
The next four numbers feature key tracks from the newest album at the time, Workingman's Dead. Stripped down to their basic elements, these songs clearly display the band returning to their folk roots with remarkable flare and style. These songs were brand new to audiences at the time and would soon become classics, destined to become staples of the Dead's repertoire for the next 25 years. This sequence begins with the deeply mournful "Black Peter" followed by an audience request for "Friend Of The Devil," which delights Garcia. Weir announces that they'll be breaking a long-standing tradition by repeating this number, which was also performed at the early show. A lovely acoustic version of "Uncle John's Band" is next, followed by "Candy Man," which features impressive acoustic guitar work and sweet ensemble playing from all. Hearing these classic songs in stripped down acoustic form when they were so fresh and new is a rare treat that is sure to delight both casual and hard-core fans alike.
At this point, they announce that they'd like to have NRPS guitarist David Nelson join them on stage, but Pigpen interrupts the proceedings by saying, "Wait a minute! Don't I get to play one?" This is met with plenty of audience encouragement so the group turns the stage over to Pigpen, who proceeds to play some blues. Both "She's Mine" and the "Katie Mae" which follows are a rare glimpse of Pigpen performing solo acoustic and returning to his roots. Always the bluesy foundation of the Grateful Dead, these performances clearly show where Pigpen was coming from, with a raw earthy delivery based on Texas blues men like Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. These are thoroughly authentic performances that not only provide rare insight into what inspired Pigpen, but also provide listeners with a glimpse as to what attracted Garcia to Pigpen in the first place. These are prime examples of what Pigpen was like before the Grateful Dead existed, playing straightforward blues for his own enjoyment. Both songs are fine examples of pure undiluted Pigpen outside the context of the Grateful Dead and the Fillmore audience appreciates it. Following Pigpen's solo excursion, David Nelson does indeed join the band onstage as they bookend this acoustic set with another debut; the primarily a cappella gospel number, "A Voice From On High," sung with full blown four part harmony and a sweet mandolin part courtesy of Nelson.
This concludes the first of the three late show sets, and following a brief intermission, Garcia and Nelson will regroup for a set by the New Riders Of The Purple Sage (with Garcia switching over to pedal steel), followed by a full-blown electric Grateful Dead set.