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CD Review: Grateful Dead – Fillmore West 1969

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Guest reviewer Fumo Verde

This one’s for the Deadheads in the house, but first a little history lesson. Live/Dead, considered one of the band’s best albums, was released in late ’69 and was recorded over a four-night period from February 27 to March 2, 1969 at the Fillmore West. It was the first-ever, 16-track stereo, live album ever made. At the time of this recording, most albums were recorded in two-track. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded in three-track. Folks such as Tom Dowd at Atlantic Records were dabbling in eight-track, so for the Dead doing this in 16-track, it was a major breakthrough, technology-wise. The Dead pretty much wrote their own ticket after that and the rest is Dead history

This new release from Rhino Records revisits their legendary run at the Fillmore and expands on it, even featuring different versions of tracks that appear on Live/Dead that are as clear as they can be for a live show recorded some 30 years ago. This whole album captures a time that was not only a turning point for the Grateful Dead, but it marked a turning point in music history.

The doors to the past are opened for us with songs like “Cosmic Charlie”, “Turn on Your Love Light” and that blues staple “I’m A King Bee” along with some feedback and crowd noise. Light up some of that Trainwreck that’s making the rounds and I’m there, babies. With the 23-minute “That’s It For The Other One” and the 25-minute “Jam” section, this album unchains the band from what most other artists at the time were trying to break free of. These tracks give the Dead a chance to let their hair..ah…down, or flow as the case maybe, and it shows how good they could really be. Any Deadhead who has a few shows under their belt will tell you, “when they are ON, they are really ON, but when they aren’t, man, it really shows.” The shows at the Fillmore West were some of the best.

This was also a time when Robert Hunter started his treasure trove of a relationship with the Dead, by helping to write the words to “Dark Star”, a pivotal song for the Dead, that when played live would open up many different musical avenues for the band to travel down. It was a signature piece of Dead performances for the next half of the century. Here, they create 20 minutes of musical magic before delving into the majestic “St Stephen.”

The three discs are incased in a hardbound booklet, with the decorative artwork in a black and white setting that gives it that “historical look back” style. Inside treasure awaits. The 60-page book explains how the Dead managed to pull off such a feat as this album, and that the release of Live/Dead saved the Dead from financial disaster. It’s also filled with about 30-odd pages of just pictures of the band in all sorts of aspects and views. The boys at the time were still boys from the Haight Ashbury scene, Phil, Jerry, Bob and Pigpen. There is also a picture of the original set lists with red pen marks that indicate the songs and sets that were put on this album.

Fillmore West 1969 is a perfect collector’s item for any Deadhead this holiday, or any time. The music is strictly Dead, and the booklet itself is worth the money. As the band gets older more things that we may or may not have heard before will probably rain down upon the record stores or in the form of digital downloads so that we may buy them, but its going to be hard to beat this set. Hearing the Dead live, and looking at the photos from way back when brings one’s mind back to a time when rock ‘n’ roll meant something and the only hassle at a show was just trying to scalp a ticket to get in.

The Dead were a band of innovators, a band who pushed itself to the limit, sometimes too far, but they always brought it back for the fans. With this three-CD set you not only get to hear the Dead live, but you get a backstage pass to read what was really going on behind the scenes at those shows live at the Fillmore West back in 1969.

hohoho…..from Fumo.

Fumo Verde is a member of The Masked Music Snobs.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS