The Grateful Dead were far more famous as a live band than anything else, so it’s no surprise that their first live album, the two-disc set Live/Dead, is of unquestioned importance to Dead fans and rock music historians. Documenting the band’s first major flowering as a long-form experimental group, it has remained one of the most popular of the band’s official LPs since its release in November 1969.
Several of the tracks on Live/Dead (the first live 16-track album ever made) were chosen from a relatively carefully planned four-night run at the Dead’s “home base,” San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore West ballroom. Fans have long desired more material from those concerts, and so, recently, the Dead released a limited-edition 10-CD boxed set containing all four shows in their entirety.
A bit excessive, you say? If you’re not quite that much of a Deadhead – or if you didn’t snag your copy before they sold out – the beautifully produced 3-CD set Fillmore West 1969 should be just the thing to cure your Blues for Allah.
In 1969 the band was developing the template for Grateful Dead concerts for decades to come: a compact set of discrete, relatively short songs, followed, after a break, by a set of longer, free-form jams built around the skeletons of a few select numbers. Although, in their maturity, the Dead could base a jam on most anything, several of what became their favorites were chosen and developed at the time of these recordings. So this set is of unusual interest, as much for its historical significance as for its multifaceted musical inspiration.
It’s easy to forget that the early Grateful Dead depended hugely upon the singer (and harmonica and keyboard player) Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s vocals and stage charisma. His Joplinesque energy and singing gave the Dead a degree of blues credibility the band wouldn’t have otherwise had. This is especially evident on the blues-heavy Disc One. Yet even in some of Pigpen’s songs, the band’s uniqueness comes through. Although “I’m a King Bee” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” are both straight blues tunes, the former is played fairly straight while the latter is full of the micro-rhythms and fillips that made the Dead the supreme jam band. The Bobby “Blue” Bland R&B classic “Turn On Your Lovelight,” a two-chord song that became so identified with the Dead that their rendition was actually the first many people ever heard, displays an almost bebop-like level of improvisatory complexity.
Discs Two and Three are representative of Dead show second sets: longer jams that merge into epic suites; more soloing, less singing; more ethereal, folksy Jerry Garcia, less gruff Pigpen. One gets a clear sense that despite McKernan’s continued presence, the band’s bluesy element was already becoming less important. Disc Two is dominated by the Dark Star -> St. Stephen -> The Eleven -> Death Don’t Have No Mercy suite, totalling almost 43 minutes, and Disc Three is one long suite anchored by “That’s It For The Other One,” a suite in itself which was always (for me) the most exciting of the Dead’s “usual” jams. The Disc Three suite also contains the “Drums” and “Space” (here called “Jam”) sections that practically every Dead second set was to include thenceforth.
A nicely printed booklet with plenty of photographs and Dennis McNally’s informative liner notes is built in, giving the package the comforting one-piece feel of a real album (in the old sense of the word). The sound quality is unusually good for the time. Sadly, Pigpen and Jerry Garcia are no longer with us, and while the band’s concerts will survive indefinitely through the bootlegging they encouraged, it is quite wonderful to have this fine-sounding and lovingly presented encapsulation of rock’s greatest improvisational band at their earliest peak.