Ron Pigpen McKernan - vocals, harmonica, organ, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass; Bill Kruetzman - drums; Mickey Hart - percussion
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, signaled the beginning of lyricist Robert Hunter's most prolific and inspired era, where his lyrics 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 the 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 both acoustic and electric configurations. For the first time, The Dead began performing live acoustic sets that showcased new material as well as the traditional style folk and blues favorites from their past.
Many of The Dead's most inspired performances that year occurred at Fillmore East and West, where the New York City and San Francisco audiences always embraced them. The group also enjoyed these venues for their professional crews and sound systems, which were superior to other rock music venues in America. The Grateful Dead did several multi-night engagements at The Fillmores in 1970 and these performances remain some of the most diverse performances of their career. One such run occurred in April of 1970, when The Dead had the daunting task of following Miles Davis for four nights at Fillmore West. These concerts fell directly between the sessions for the Dead's most popular albums (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) during a prolific and inspired phase in the group's history.
Presented here is the final hour of the band's April 12th performance, closing night of this four-night engagement at Fillmore West. Despite containing a wealth of Workingman's Dead material, much of it performed acoustically during this run of shows, everything here is performed by the electric configuration of the band. The recording starts with a pair of Workingman's Dead tracks beginning with the bluegrass influenced "Cumberland Blues." The band is in good, relatively relaxed form here and this would be an almost perfect reading, save for Bob Weir breaking a guitar string. The country-flavored "Dire Wolf" follows. Both of these numbers are prime examples of the Garcia/Hunter songwriting partnership exploring their root influences (in this case bluegrass and country music) and in the process expanding the scope of the Grateful Dead's sound.
The centerpiece of this recording is a standout performance of the Martha & The Vandella's hit "Dancing In The Street," with Bob Weir taking over on lead vocals and performed true to the original arrangement (not their later disco rearrangement!). Following the opening verses, the band head directly into a spirited improvisation that remains focused throughout, gradually building in intensity. It features plenty of Garcia's circular soloing, Lesh's chordal bass bombs, Weir playing rhythm guitar like a man possessed, and Pigpen's tasteful organ work (which is uncharacteristically prominent in the mix not only on this song but throughout this set). Garcia eventually begins signaling a return to the final verse, but Lesh and Weir lock into another inspired groove that propels the song even higher and Garcia reacts by taking off for the stratosphere one last time before they head for the vocal reprise. This is easily one of the finest Dead performances of this song ever.
Another pair of fresh Workingman's Dead tracks follow, with the mournful "Black Peter" and a new anthem for Deadhead's everywhere, "Uncle John's Band." Both of these songs find Garcia and Hunter composing with a newfound clarity and with good reason, both songs would remain permanent staples of the band's live repertoire. A rare treat surfaces next, with Pigpen fronting the band on a vibrant cover of James Brown's "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World." The second known Grateful Dead performance of this song, which would only be performed a handful of times that year alone, proves to be a fine vehicle for Pigpen's gritty vocal style. This is quite a remarkable performance, featuring a spirited jam with aggressive contributions from Garcia and Lesh, who along with Weir provide fully engaged backup vocals.
The set closes with a stomping "Viola Lee Blues;" one of the many jug band numbers that the band electrified for their first album. "Viola Lee Blues" was also the most adventurous, containing spontaneous improvisation at a time when jamming was virtually unheard of outside of a jazz context. Unlike the amphetamine fueled studio recording, here "Viola Lee Blues" is taken at a slower clip, initially giving it a heavier lumbering feel. However, when the jam ensues, the sparks fly, with the entire band fully engaged. In addition to great contributions from all involved, this is another rare opportunity to clearly hear Pigpen's swirling organ work, which helps fuel the primal feel of this performance. Fifteen solid minutes after "Viola Lee Blues" began, The Dead wrap up the night amidst howls of intentional amplifier feedback and free form noise.