Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, organ, harmonica, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Bill Kruetzman - 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 the Grateful Dead's music during 1968 and into the year that followed.
With second drummer and percussionist Mickey Hart now on board, 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 year. 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. The second set from the final night of the Fillmore West part of this run, occurring two nights prior, is presented here and is nearly as impressive. Capturing the band at exactly the halfway point between the Anthem Of The Sun recordings and the seminal 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.
Never at a loss for a humorous introduction, the recording begins with the voice of Fillmore West impresario, Bill Graham, who declares the band "Clean cut, but morally corrupt." The group immediately heads 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 more expansive Live/Dead era performances. While not as inspired or 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.
The remainder of the set is devoted exclusively to Anthem of the Sun material, and with the exception of "Born Cross-Eyed," the Dead proceed to perform that album in order and in its entirety. As such, they continue with "Cryptical Envelopment," the opening sequence of the side one suite, which, following a brief drum break, explodes into "The Other One." Although flawed (a tape splice occurs shortly before the four minute mark), this contains sizzling interplay, with Lesh and the double drummers propelling the band and Garcia's guitar and Constanten's organ dancing above the onslaught. This too, would develop and expand as the years went by, but all of its promise is encapsulated in this tight fiery performance. The reprise of the "Cryptical Envelopment" section, which immediately follows, initially cools things back down, while continuing the exploratory approach. This section also serves as a bridge that leads listeners directly into "New Potato Caboose," which follows and concludes the continuous sequence. Beginning melodically and introspectively, this continually builds over the course of 13 minutes, and although Lesh's bass is out of tune, it detracts very little from the psychedelic intensity of this remarkable sequence.
Up to this point, the group's front man, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, has been relegated to the sidelines, but when he takes center stage for the performance of the second side of Anthem Of The Sun ("Alligator" and "Caution"), everything cranks up another notch, and this sequence is arguably the most satisfying part of the set. Beginning with a bouncy romp through "Alligator," which segues into telepathic interplay by the drummers, it builds into an incendiary "Caution" that has the entire band, and Jerry Garcia in particular, seething with raw unbridled energy. This is a prime example of psychedelic jamming at its best and proves that Pigpen, despite being the least gifted musician, was often the catalyst for the Dead's most blistering performances of this era. When "Caution" reaches the most searing point and the band has nowhere else to go, a howling wall of noise ensues and for a couple of minutes they continue the exploration with free form feedback that is both frightening and fascinating. This eventually dissolves completely, culminating in an a cappella "And We Bid You Goodnight" to conclude their three night run at Fillmore West and sending the hometown audience on their way.