"Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, organ, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass; Bill Kreutzmann - drums; Mickey Hart - percussion; Guest: David Nelson - mandolin, vocals; Guest: John Dawson - 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.
After the incredible quantity of music that had already transpired over the course of this monumental evening, one might expect the Dead to be a little tired, but they show no signs of strain and proceed to deliver a consistently engaging electric set that gradually builds to an explosive conclusion. Following Bill Graham's introduction, they kick it off with "China Cat Sunflower" which develops into a smokin' hot jam before tearing off into "I Know You Rider." Dipping into newer material from the Workingman's Dead album, they next deliver a far more incendiary reading of "Cumberland Blues," a song they played acoustic during the early show. Clearly derivative of Garcia and Hunter's bluegrass roots, this second performance is a great example of the band electrifying traditional styles into a form of modern Americana that is uniquely their own.
Next up, Pigpen takes center stage for a rousing rendition of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle," whipping the audience into a frenzy in the process. Bob Weir fronts the group for "Beat It On Down The Line," an old jugband tune that the group electrified for their first album in 1967. For their own amusement, they play 14 opening beats before taking off into the song, instead of the usual one or two. A second acknowledgement to their oldest fans follows with "Morning Dew," another track from their debut album. This is one deep and heavy performance, with Garcia singing passionately and the band playing with intense concentration. Pigpen again takes over for "Good Lovin'," which launches the band into the first extended jam of this set. Moments of this are blistering and everyone involved gets a serious workout. Following "Good Lovin'," they settle down a bit with "Dire Wolf" yet another of the new rootsy Garcia/Hunter tunes from Workingman's Dead, before tackling the rocking blues of "Next Time You See Me," again with Pigpen dominating the band and adding his engaging blues harp stylings to the instrumentation.
Some humorous interaction with the audience ensues while the musicians retune their instruments and prepare for the final sequence. Then out of the fray, "Dark Star" emerges, their most intentionally exploratory song vehicle. For the next 19 minutes, listeners are taken on a journey into deep space. The improvisations continually shift and morph into surprising areas. At times extremely intense and at others dissolving into freeform space devoid of rhythm or melody, this remains mesmerizing throughout. Like the classic Live Dead album version, "Dark Star" segues directly into "St. Stephen," which is unfortunately cut here, but what remains is tight, focused, and has some incendiary guitar and bass work. Replacing "The Eleven"—which had been the usual "St. Stephen" follower the previous year—is Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," here transformed into a wild celebration with the band rocking at full tilt. After six minutes or so, this rips right into the opening of "Turn On Your Lovelight" and Pigpen again takes over, showing his gift for improvising vocals as well as any of the instrumentalists improvisational abilities. "Lovelight blazes along for nearly half an hour before coming to a furious close, leaving the audience dazed and exhausted.
After several minutes of a standing ovation, Garcia, Weir, and Lesh return to the stage, along with NRPS members, Nelson and Dawson. Returning to stripped-down acoustic instrumentation, they send the audience on their way with the gospel number, "Cold Jordan," another rarity which they had debuted during the early show's acoustic set, providing a spiritual close to one of the lengthiest nights in the Dead's entire career.