Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, organ, harmonica, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Bill Kreutzmann - drums; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion
The Grateful Dead's 1967 debut album retains its charms and represents the band's primal early era when the core quintet was primarily performing cover material. However, it was the group's far more daring sophomore album, Anthem of the Sun, released in July of 1968, that conveyed the group's approach to live performing, compositional originality, and promise for the future. This highly ambitious album was unlike anything that had come before it, featuring a multi-layered blend of live and studio recordings, often with multiple performances playing simultaneously. The Dead's first album to contain all original material, much of it embracing unconventional time signatures and pushing the limits of what could be achieved with studio recording technology, this album had an otherworldly quality that would come to define the Grateful Dead's music during 1968 and into the year that followed.
With second drummer Mickey Hart added to the core quintet, the Grateful Dead's music intensified dramatically, becoming denser, layered and ultimately more colorful, exploratory, and psychedelic. Many of the Dead's most exciting improvisational vehicles, including "Dark Star," "The Other One," and "The Eleven" came to fruition during this time. The group's conscious effort to embrace experimentation and to explore the outer limits of improvisation would continue over the course of their career, but for many listeners, 1968 and 1969 remain the peak years of uninhibited creativity.
One of the most revered performance runs of this era occurred in August of 1968 with a three night series of concerts at San Francisco's Fillmore West, followed by a pair of shows at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. Indeed, the last night at the Shrine (August 24, 1968) was deemed so incendiary that it would become the Two From the Vault release decades later, when the band first began releasing peak performance recordings from their vast archive.
Presented here is the second set from the second night of the Fillmore West run, occurring three nights prior, featuring a performance that is nearly as impressive. Capturing the band after the release of the Anthem of the Sun album, but several months prior to the Live/Dead album recordings from early the following year, this performance represents the Grateful Dead at a most adventurous moment, performing with a focus and ferocity that has rarely ever been equaled within a rock music context.
With an emphasis on Anthem of yhe Sun material, and featuring a more psychadelisized blues treatment of the first album track Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," sandwiched in the middle, this recording finds the band's music progressing a great distance from just a year prior.
The set begins with the opening suite, "That's It for the Other One" from Anthem of the Sun. Beginning shortly in progress with the "Cryptical Envelopment" sequence and just a mere few seconds of the drums, by the 45-second mark they have already exploded into "The Other One" proper and although still just warming up, the sparks are already flying. This cooks along until the six-minute mark, when they transition back into the "Cryptical" reprise. This remains sparse for several minutes, gradually increasing in intensity, before returning to a relaxed groove that eventually transitions in "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." This and the remainder of this first set present Pigpen in superb form, fronting the band on vocals, organ, and blues harp while the band kicks things up another notch. By the end of this first half-hour sequence, they are ready to tackle "Alligator," which begins with trepidation, but following an extended percussion interlude, tears into a ferocious jam lasting the remainder of the set. The last 10 minutes, in which they further explore "Alligator," finds the band entering deeper psychedelic territory, with Garcia briefly exploring the melody of Donovan's "First There Is a Mountain," as well as other themes that would continue to surface in the years to come, eventually culminating in a wall of howling feedback to close the set.
This set certainly has moments of flashing brilliance, but remains only a precursor to the second set (also here in the Concert Vault), where the band unveils its newer material, which in this case means the classic material destined for the Live/Dead album.