Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, harmonica, percussion; Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Tom Constanten - keyboards; Bill Kruetzman - drums; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion
Following several years of musical experimentation and exploration, the tail end of 1969 would begin a period of transition for The Grateful Dead, where they would expand the range of their music and begin reaching a broader audience. The band's first album of the new decade, Workingman's Dead and then American Beauty, which would follow later in the year, would signal the beginning of lyricist Robert Hunter's most prolific and inspired era, where his lyric writing took on a new focus and clarity. Likewise, The Dead's music was beginning to take on a new focus and clarity, as they began consciously returning to their roots, embracing stylistic elements from the late 1950s/early 1960s folk, country and blues revivals that initially inspired bandleaders, Jerry Garcia and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, to begin playing music together.
At the time of this December 7, 1969, Fillmore West performance, the band still had one foot firmly planted in the heavy psychedelic explorations of the past several years, but were now taking steps toward a new song-based sound. This configuration of The Grateful Dead wouldn't last much longer as the classically trained avant-garde keyboardist, Tom Constanten, would soon depart, forever changing the density of the group's sound. This performance, recorded on the final night of a four night stand that featured The Flock and Humble Pie as openers, is a good example of the group at this transitional time. This set is also notable for taking place on the night after the disastrous Altamont concert, which was marred by violence and poor planning and is now widely considered to mark the end of the "peace and love" vibe of the 1960s. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play an afternoon set at Altamont and were indeed on site, but they bailed out in the midst of escalating violence, which included an incident during Jefferson Airplane's performance where lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hell's Angel, who were serving as stage security.
The Dead's performance begins with a suitably mournful opening number in "Black Peter," one of the new Garcia/Hunter songs destined for Workingman's Dead. This is the only time the group is known to have begun a performance with this song. Following this rather solemn beginning, Pigpen attempts to liven things up with his rendition of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle." The next three numbers are also new to The Dead's repertoire at this time, beginning with "Cumberland Blues," another Garcia/Hunter composition using bluegrass elements, followed by Bob Weir fronting the band on a country-tinged cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." Although all of this material is relatively fresh to the Dead's live repertoire, they sound somewhat sloppy and distracted here, which isn't surprising considering the circumstances. Rounding out the newer material is an early performance of "Easy Wind," a writing collaboration between Hunter and Pigpen also destined for Workingman's Dead. This is taken at a slower pace than later versions, with the band taking some interesting twists and turns. Here Pigpen's harmonica playing is showcased and the band bounces along nicely during the jam. All three of the new originals performed here are still in a somewhat embryonic state, with the group working them out on stage prior to recording them. Despite being less focused, it is interesting to hear this configuration of the group performing these new songs. They clearly convey the band evolving toward the more formal song structure that would fuel their writing into the next decade.
The group focus improves as the set continues with older material, beginning with covers of "Dancing In The Street" and "Good Lovin'." The former is unfortunately incomplete due to a tape stock change, but the familiarity of this material shows the group beginning to pick up steam. From here on out, the remainder of the set is one continuous excursion that gets better and better as they venture back into the psychedelic territory that made this configuration of the band so compelling.
This nearly hour-long continuous sequence begins with an early pairing of "China Cat Sunflower" into "I Know You Rider," which would remain a staple of the group's live repertoire for the next three decades. Rather than stopping at the conclusion of "I Know You Rider," Garcia plays the opening riff to "St. Stephen," which begins the most inspired sequence of this performance. From here on out, the group tackle the Live/Dead material. "St. Stephen" is performed in a slower, somewhat plodding manner, but following the "William Tell" vocal bridge, they head into 13 minutes of solid jamming with "The Eleven." By this time the group was quite comfortable improvising in its unconventional time signature (11/4) and many inspired moments occur. While it lacks the ferocity of performances earlier in the year, it is still quite engaging and one of the last times they would perform it. (They would soon revamp the infamous Live/Dead sequence, replacing "The Eleven" with the far easier to play "Not Fade Away.") The set concludes with a marathon version of "Turn On Your Lovelight," which lasts nearly half an hour. One of Pigpen's signature tunes, this is a great example of his ability to vocally improvise at the same level as the musicians. Despite his "macho rapping" sounding dated in today's politically correct climate, Pigpen is fully engaged here and simply incorporating elements of the blues and soul greats he admired into his performance. While the musicians were undeniably exciting to hear during this era, it was Pigpen who could best directly engage an audience. This is another strong example of him relentlessly working the Fillmore West audience to a frenzied level. (Bershaw)
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