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The Grateful Dead - Fillmore West 1969

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Artist: The Grateful Dead

Album: Fillmore West 1969

Label: GD Productions

Review date: Dec. 14, 2005

The line between responsible musicological research and some overripe and glorified fanmail is often faint and blurry. I have found the review to be a happy medium for having a foot in both camps, and this three-disc Dead set is a prime candidate for me to make a case for a temporal snapshot of a group whose contributions are still as often hotly contested as they are deeply admired.

I would not consider myself to be a Deadhead, although my sympathies for the group’s total output have grown over the last few years. I saw them in the early ’90s, and I own a few of my favorite shows and several volumes of the rapidly growing Dick’s Picks archival series, but my favorite period is still 1967-1970. Within that small slice of a 30-year trajectory, 1969 is clearly a banner year, and the landmark album Live/Dead was my first exposure to the band, bought when I was 9 years old because it was a double LP with only six songs on it. The set baffled and excited me with its raw energy, spoiling me long-term regarding the mellower but seemingly more detailed sound cultivated in later years. I remember well my budding fascination with the epically jazzy long-form unfurling of “Dark Star,” the solemn blues-based explorations of “Death Don’t Have no Mercy” and the threatening but joyous exuberance of Pigpen roaring and moaning his street-smart way through “Turn on your Love light” – these latter two tracks being my first exposure to “roots” music. While the group’s songcraft would improve considerably at the end of this time of research and development, and they would become even tighter and better polished as an improvising unit, some of the psychedelic innocence would dissipate, leaving what I long considered well-prepared and carefully seasoned slices of semi-stagnation.

Only later did I learn of the legendary late-February and early-March 1969 run at the Fillmore West, from which the bulk of Live/Dead was culled, and of the previous two GD albums – Anthem of the Sun and aoxomoxoa – which were, in many ways, even more experimental than the succeeding live album. GD historian Dennis McNally’s liner notes to this three-disc compilation, taken from the same four-night engagement but presenting alternate performances, detail nicely the chronological backdrop of hippy naiveté and boundary-breaking explorative urges that made these shows the micro historical milestone they continue to be. Especially important is the fact that Live/Dead was the first live album recorded in 16-track, on one of Ampex’s prototypes. This technological breakthrough helped to make the emergent live album the best-recorded document of the Dead to emerge at that time. In some ways, the circulating copies of the complete shows, what GD tape archivist David Lemieux calls the rough mixes, sound even better, hidden sonic details up front and revelatory of the group’s newfound improvisational prowess. There were problems with these versions though, not least of which were the many gaps and interruptions of varying lengths caused by tape flips.

For this new compilation, taken from a 10-disc box (the complete run is now sold out), the entire stint has been lovingly remastered, remixed in most cases, and the gaps filled in from two-track masters. Lemieux described the results of the early mixing stages to me as “night and day” compared to the rough mixes, but I was not prepared for just how much detail was on those tapes. The differences are far too many to even begin to list here; suffice it to say that even a cursory listening exposes huge depth and breadth of sound, a refreshing crispness that reveals the constant energy bubbling below the surface of even the quietest moments.

“Morning Dew,” the set’s opener, illustrates the enormous spectral range in microcosm. A gong and some percussive counting-off bring the tune into focus, along with some in-your-face distorted thwacks from bassist Phil Lesh and a few of Gerry’s trademark bluesy responses. Just before the vocals enter, the volume and density drop with sickening suddenness, the hairpin turn given new clarity in this remastering. Similarly, on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, the irrepressible Pigpen’s urgently gravelly shouts of “Hey!” virtually leap from the speakers. Throughout the set, each moment can bring the most unexpected changes in musical atmosphere and style, demonstrating that the GD was already well on the way to the often telepathic improvs of later eras. Check out the hard-rocking riffage opening this version of “Cosmic Charlie” as it morphs within seconds to a more gently swinging lope as the volume fades, or the gradual buildup to “St. Stephen” as it kicks into gospel overdrive from almost nothing. “Stephen” is especially notable for the work of additional keyboardist Tom T.C. Constantine, whose work on these sessions is now even better served. The transition from “Stephen” to “The Eleven” would be a failure without his famous “Scottish” organ filigree. My musicological ears hear, retrospectively of course, nascent interests in America’s diverse array of traditional music coming together under the all-inclusive umbrella of psychedelia, while much of the music is hedonistically visceral in its joyful self-consciousness.

The three discs are crammed full, and they should be heard as a unit, as they mirror what a show of the period might have been like. Discs two and three have the lion’s share of the longer tracks, including the “Dark Star/Stephen/Eleven” suite, which McNally asserts that the group was aiming to perfect with these shows. It is impossible to do verbal justice to the gradual unfolding of a lengthy GD improvisation, to the apparent noodling that suddenly takes shape and becomes transcendental dialogue, but it is here a-plenty. Much of the onstage banter is preserved, enhancing the concert experience and adding a layer of fun to what is obviously a group dynamic at one of several zeniths. Only the occasional discrepancies in tape speed mar an otherwise outstanding set of recordings, and obvious care has been taken where possible to minimize the problem. This is a terrific distillation of what made the Dead so important in American music during a time of incredible ferment, much like the one we are experiencing now. I hope those not overly disposed to the group and its “scene” will give this one a careful listen.

By Marc Medwin

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