Ron Pigpen McKernan - harmonica, piano, organ, percussion; Jerry Garcia - acoustic guitar, piano, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Bill Kruetzman - drums; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion; Guests: David Grisman - mandolin; David Nelson - mandolin, guitar
Following several years of musical experimentation and exploration, the dawn of the 1970s would begin a period of transition for the Grateful Dead, where they would expand the range of their music and in doing so, 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 writing took on a new focus and clarity. Likewise, the Dead's music was taking on a new focus and clarity, as they began consciously returning to their roots, embracing acoustic instrumentation and incorporating 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. This influx of new songs and expanded diversity of material led to a revamping of their live performances. Their live performances began featuring multiple sets, providing the musicians the opportunity to play in several configurations. Often billed as "An Evening with the Grateful Dead," their concerts were exactly that - a full evening of broad ranging music that often ran until the wee hours of the morning. For the first time, the group began performing live acoustic sets that showcased new material as well as the traditional style folk and blues favorites from their past. This was often followed by a set of country-flavored rock from Dead-family offshoot band New Riders of the Purple Sage, in which Jerry Garcia was exploring the pedal steel guitar. The night would continue with one or occasionally two full-blown electric sets, where the band would often present newer material and tightly arranged songs followed by material that facilitated improvisation and experimentation.
Many of the Dead's most inspired performances that year occurred at Fillmore East, where the New York City audience always embraced them. The group also enjoyed the Fillmore East for its crew and sound system, which at the time was superior to every other rock venue in America. Indeed it was the only venue where the Dead didn't demand using their own sound equipment, making the overall working experience more comfortable. The Grateful Dead did several multi-night runs at Fillmore East over the course of the year and these performances remain some of the most diverse and impressive of their entire career. The final Fillmore East run that year occurred over the course of four nights in September. For Jerry Garcia, who was also a NRPS member at the time, these concerts would become marathons of endurance, with this final night of the run being a prime example. Over the course of the evening, the Dead would deliver one of the most extraordinary setlists of their entire career, featuring an abundance of fresh new material (much of it sourced from the Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) as well as several rarities, making this performance a fascinating listen from beginning to end.
The first set on this evening typifies the diversity of a 1970 Dead concert, beginning with an acoustic set packed with delightful surprises, including guest appearances by David Grisman and David Nelson, who both play mandolin during this set. The festivities begin with a lovely acoustic reading of "Uncle John's Band." Never a band that excelled at vocal harmonies outside the studio, this opening number is an exception featuring remarkably tight vocals and flawless instrumentation. Garcia next leads the way into the rarely performed "Deep Elum Blues," followed by a lively "Friend Of The Devil," that is not only true to the original up-tempo studio recording, but also features David Grisman and David Nelson adding beautiful mandolin touches throughout. An unusual slower arrangement of "Big Railroad Blues," is next, which also features the mandolins and is quite a remarkable performance, with Garcia having so much fun, he even begins improvising lyrics toward the end just to keep it going. Bob Weir takes his first lead vocal of the night on a sweet folky reading of the bluegrass classic, "Dark Hollow," with Garcia adding harmony vocals and Pigpen on harmonica.
Rarely played until it became the nightly acoustic set finale' during the band's massive 1980 anniversary celebration runs at the Warfield and Radio City, this 1970 acoustic performance of "Ripple" may indeed be The Dead's most potent live performance of this beloved song ever. With Grisman recreating the lovely mandolin break that he contributed to the bridge of the American Beauty recording and a spot-on lead vocal from Garcia, this is essential listening. Another astounding performance follows with Garcia taking a seat at the piano (yes, the piano!) to unveil a new song destined for his first solo album sessions the following year, "To Lay Me Down." With Garcia on piano, Pigpen on organ, Grisman on mandolin, and either New Rider David Nelson or Bob Weir temporarily switching to electric guitar, this is not only a fascinating configuration, but also a mesmerizing performance of this rarely performed song still in embryonic form.
Switching back to acoustic guitars and with Pigpen playing piano, the group next performs one of their career defining songs, "Truckin'." Only the fourth time this autobiographical song had ever been played on stage, this would also be the last time they would ever perform it in an acoustic configuration. Other than Weir jumping the gun on his vocal at the beginning, this is otherwise a near perfect reading of this classic song when it was as fresh as can be. To hear it performed acoustically and so enthusiastically is a special treat indeed. Next up, Garcia remains on acoustic guitar and fronts the group on a cover of the Monroe Brothers' "Rosa Lee McFall," which again features wonderful mandolin accompaniment. Written by Charlie (brother of the bluegrass legend Bill) Monroe, this number dates back to Garcia's pre-Dead repertoire as an aspiring banjo-picker and has rarely been performed by the Grateful.
The remaining three songs of the first set focus on new material culled from the Workingman's Dead and American Beauty sessions that year. First up is a tight, up-tempo romp through "Cumberland Blues," with Garcia strapping on an electric guitar for the first time that evening. Backed by Weir on acoustic and Grisman and Nelson again joining in on mandolin, this zips right along with strong vocal harmonies and tight playing from everyone involved. Clearly derivative of Garcia and Hunter's bluegrass roots, this performance is a great example of the band electrifying traditional styles into a form of modern Americana that is uniquely their own.
An excellent extended version of "New Speedway Boogie," follows with Garcia remaining on electric guitar. Based on Hunter's musings about Altamont the previous December, this is a particularly blues-based reading that cooks along for nearly 10 minutes. This would be the last time the Grateful Dead tackled this number during the year it was released, and it wouldn't resurface for another two decades, when they would eventually revive it in 1991. They bring this first set of the evening to a close with another gorgeous new Garcia/Hunter collaboration, "Broke Down Palace." Featuring some of Hunter's most introspective lyrics, Garcia returning to acoustic guitar and Pigpen on piano, this is a penetrating listen that serves as a perfect set closer.
By the end of the year, the Grateful Dead would virtually retire their acoustic instruments and not use them on stage again for a full decade. Following a brief intermission, Garcia and Nelson would regroup for a set by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, followed by a full-blown electric Grateful Dead set (also featured here at Wolfgang's). This remarkable set, which features Garcia on lead vocal for 10 of the 12 songs, is widely considered to be one of the greatest acoustic performances the band ever did.