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.
Although the first set emphasized Anthem of the Sun material, the second set initially focuses on newer repertoire, which in this case means the material destined for Live/Dead the following year. Although in more embryonic form here, the sequence of "Dark Star," "St. Stephen," and "The Eleven" is already quite inspired.
The second set wastes no time heading for the stratosphere with an expanded take on their latest single "Dark Star." Far more developed than the quirky and brief single recording, this displays the band shifting toward the far more expansive Live/Dead era performances. While not quite as satisfying as the lengthier performances from early 1969, they are clearly headed in that direction, and this version of "Dark Star" is a fine example of the group hitting new heights of collective ensemble improvisation. "Dark Star" dissolves into "St. Stephen," the bouncy and quirky rocker destined to kick off their next album Aoxomoxoa. Taken at a slightly more up tempo clip than later versions, this is a fun romp before they again explode in "The Eleven," which displays just how far the band has come as musicians, despite Weir and Pigpen being in over their heads. With its unusual time signature and shifting and complex arrangement, this features some of the Dead's most sizzling interplay, with Lesh and the double drummers propelling the action and Garcia's circular improvisations dancing above the onslaught. Phil Lesh's bass work, which often serves as the lead instrument here, is highly innovative and at times nothing short of extraordinary. This is also one of the earliest performances to include Robert Hunter's impenetrable (but fun to try, anyway!) lyrics.
At the concluding of "The Eleven," rather than tear directly into "Turn On Your Lovelight," the band descends into the smoldering darkness of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Returning to the blues base that was at the heart of much of their early material, this is another compelling performance with Garcia in particular strong form, both vocally and instrumentally.
Up to this point in the set, Pigpen has been relegated to playing organ, but for the remainder of the set, he again takes over as frontman for the group. Despite being the least gifted musician, Pigpen was often the catalyst for the Dead's most blistering performances of this era, and this "Turn On Your Lovelight," although incomplete, is no exception.
Although anti-climactic following such a sizzling set, the encore again features Pigpen fronting the band as they crunch their way through "Midnight Hour;" dipping back to their earliest stage repertoire to conclude what was otherwise a performance filled with boundless promise for the future.