Fillmore West 1969 – The Grateful Dead
Live/Dead was arguably The Grateful Dead’s most notable work. While certain studio albums, such as American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, are considered classics, Live/Dead was the first album to truly capture the fantastic ethos of one of the world’s most dynamic live bands. In addition, Live/Dead was the first live album to ever be recorded in the then-revolutionary 16-track format. Through a friend at Ampex, the Dead had learned of the 16-track recorder and after some studio experimentation, they decided to apply it to their live act. At the time, they were obsessed with recording two suites of live music, one centering around “That’s It For The Other One” and one focused on “Dark Star” and the “St. Stephen > The Eleven” that would inevitably follow it. After a few unsuccessful attempts to capture these songs in concert, the band settled on a late February/early March 1969 run at their hometown digs at the Fillmore West, and while they never exactly planned out the setlists, they reduced their rotation to a handful of songs to guarantee they’d strike gold on the live album. And that they did.
Of course, while the Dead were reveling in new technology to record the album, they still were limited by the 22-minute maximum per side allowed on an LP. For a band that often stretched songs past the 22-minute mark, this posed quite a challenge, and after the Fillmore West run ended and the album was assembled, a lot of great material was left on the cutting room floor. Enter those wizards of repurposing, Grateful Dead Productions, and — voila! — suddenly, the entire Fillmore West run is released on 10 discs. However, only 10,000 copies are printed, and after the set sells out in pre-release (and several Deadheads subsequently make a mint on eBay), a three-disc highlights set is released to the public.
First and foremost, people should not feel slighted if they missed out on their chance to score the 10-disc monster set. The setlists for the run featured oodles of repetition, and honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot of variety in the way certain songs were played from night to night. True, numbers like “Dark Star” were always improvisational vehicles, but each one in this run still sounded like a mellow February/March 1969 “Dark Star.” For the most part, this abbreviated compilation really does a good job in whittling down the excesses of the complete set and distilling it down into the essential tracks from the run. One rendition of every number played over the four days is here, with the exception of the omitted rough and ragged spontaneous encore of “Hey Jude” from March 1, 1969. Obsessive collectors will have to be content with imagining Pigpen singing off-key and botching lyrics left and right.
In the rarity department, there aren’t a whole lot of officially released live versions of “Cosmic Charlie,” so fans should relish the scorching rendition covered on this release. The same also goes for a cut of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” that features Garcia on acoustic before he quickly switches to electric for a beautiful take on “Mountains of the Moon.” Pigpen certainly gets his due here, with a somewhat faster than normal spin on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” a simmering “I’m a King Bee,” and a rollicking “Turn On Your Lovelight.”
Naturally, the “Dark Star” suite was the cr de la cr of this time period, but the one that was chosen for the compilation is a little unexpected. The “Dark Star” has its moments, but the “St. Stephen” that follows is surprisingly weak. This was a number that could really rock, but this particular version from February 28, 1969 seems to be more polished and polite than rough and tumble. Perhaps the raw force was pent up inside because it does seem to explode on a fiery version of “The Eleven,” and the “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” that concludes the suite is blazing with emotion and fire.
Surprisingly, a band that was a master at jamming didn’t do much jamming at all during this run. In fact, they only had one instance of a true jam, and thankfully, it was included in the compilation set. Following a feisty “Alligator” and “Drums,” the band lets it all hang out on twenty-five minutes of honest-to-goodness improvisation. Moving together like a seven-headed snake, they shift in and out of grooves, locking together for brilliant moments before dissolving into chaos and then finding the next hook. Of particular note is a Garcia-led sequence in which the entire band digs into a theme which would later become a mainstay in the transition from “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” into “Not Fade Away.” Neither song was a staple in the Dead’s repertoire yet, so this it’s rather interesting to see how such as classic theme may have developed through live improvisation. And as if all that wasn’t enough, this particular jam sounds as if it occasionally jumps back-and-forth between audience and soundboard recordings, adding a new layer of sonic weirdness, which is fittingly followed by a blistering “Caution” and a transcendent “Feedback >We Bid You Goodnight.”
The Grateful Dead have released tons of live recordings over the past ten years, and while obsessive collectors want every note ever played by the band, most of us only have use for a certain (albeit still ridiculously large) number of recordings from each period of the band’s history. Nevertheless, the release of Fillmore West 1969, with its superior sound and essential role in Dead lore, makes an excellent companion to Live/Dead.