Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, percussion, harmonica
Jerry Garcia - lead guitar, vocals
Bob Weir - rhythm guitar, vocals
Phil Lesh - bass, vocals
Tom Constanten - organ
Bill Kreutzmann - drums
Mickey Hart - drums, percussion
In terms of the Grateful Dead's live performances during the 1960s, no run of shows better conveys their expressionistic collective improvisation than a 1969 engagement at Fillmore West that began on February 27th and ran for four consecutive nights through March 2nd. These concerts would be mined for what many consider to be the band's most important album, Live/Dead, as well as subsequent archival releases decades later. For anyone wondering why so many listeners were so powerfully drawn to The Grateful Dead, one only need listen to the Live/Dead album, which captured the band in inspired form during this first of several career creative peaks.
At the time, The Grateful Dead had grown to a seven piece unit that now included second drummer and percussionist Mickey Hart and keyboard player Tom Constanten, two musicians who expanded on the group's collective influences and added greater complexity and density to the music. It was also during this time that lyricist Robert Hunter became an integral ingredient, contributing lyrics loaded with fantastic imagery. Material like "Dark Star," "That's It For The Other One," "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven" were all coming to full fruition during this time. Hunter's lyrics and the musician's instrumental adventurousness created a seductive and intoxicating combination.
Presented here is the complete second set from opening night of that now legendary run. To say this set is one of the most fascinating performances of the Dead's career is not stretching the truth. Indeed, a nearly half-hour continuous sequence from this set became the first and part of the second side of Live/Dead, which many consider to be the band's greatest album.
The set begins with two numbers destined for their next studio album, "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Mountains Of The Moon" with Garcia on acoustic guitar, which was unusual for this era. The former song is Garcia and Hunter's re-creation of the traditional blues, "Betty And Dupree." The latter song begins one of the most impressive continuous sequences ever played by the band. Like the set's opening number, this also finds Garcia and Hunter mining traditional American musical elements, but here they create a beautifully introspective composition that is quite unlike anything else in the Dead's repertoire to date. Following the lyrical sequences of "Mountains Of The Moon," the group eases into a lovely improvisation, with Garcia playing delicate leads on acoustic, before seamlessly switching to electric for the remainder of the performance.
For those familiar with the Live/Dead album, this improvisation out of "Mountains Of The Moon" provides a truly spine-tingling moment when one first recognizes the seamless transition into that "Dark Star." Although the band had already developed a reputation for collective improvisation, "Dark Star" takes things further than the band had ever gone before, expanding what was initially a quirky three-minute single to stratospheric proportions. This was a composition created to evolve over an extended period of time and this particular performance is consistently inspired and contains a depth that still rewards repeated listening decades later. Seductive, exotic, mystical and transcendent, this "Dark Star" conveys the band's expressionistic improvisational abilities communicating on an emotional level akin to religious ecstasy. Much like the greatest improvisational performances of jazz musicians like John Coltrane, this performance continues to resonate with listeners to the present day, as its potency has not diminished with time.
Following the closing notes of "Dark Star," the Dead tackle the first of Garcia and Hunter's great character study songs, "St. Stephen." Aggressive, humorous and difficult to play, this too was featured on Live/Dead and represents one of the best performances of the song, when it was fresh and full of vitality. The transition out of "St. Stephen" into "The Eleven" will also ring familiar to those well versed in the Live/Dead album, but following the initial "William Tell" vocal sequence backed by Kreutzmann and Hart's military-march drumming, the remainder of this continuous sequence is not the same performances as the album. Although not as elegantly played as the Live/Dead version, this performance of "The Eleven" is considerably longer and just as incendiary, if not more so. One of the most complicated numbers ever to enter the Dead's live repertoire, this unconventional Lesh/Hunter composition is in 11/4 time and burns from beginning to end. Much like the album version, Phil Lesh clearly leads the way here, but on this performance he borders on being overly forceful, occasionally plowing over everything in his path. Still, this is one seriously wild ride that demonstrates the 1969-era Dead at their most ferocious. At times they sound downright antagonistic in their ferocity, with Garcia peeling off both harmonious and discordant leads in rapid-fire succession, the drummers continuously manipulating the rhythmic chaos and T.C.'s idiosyncratic organ work gluing it all together.
Following "The Eleven," the band is instrumentally drained and it shows with a somewhat awkward pause before launching into "Turn On Your Lovelight," which again brings Pigpen to the fore as lead vocalist. While thoroughly enjoyable, this provides the musicians an ability to relax while essentially vamping on a groove that is quite simple compared to everything that just preceded it. Pigpen is in fine form here, vocally improvising much of the time and thus bringing the performance full circle. This leaves the hometown audience howling for more.
When the band returns to the stage, they treat the audience to another of Garcia and Hunter's new character study songs, "Cosmic Charlie." Also destined for their next album, this performance is more up-tempo and punchy than the studio recording. It's a fun final romp that lyrically concludes the show with the apropos children's put-down, "Go on home, your mama's calling you." It's a fitting conclusion to the opening night of one of The Grateful Dead's most inspired run of shows ever.
-Written by Alan Bershaw