Jerry Garcia - guitar, vocals; Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, organ, percussion; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Bill Kruetzman - drums
Performing a benefit concert for the Sufi Choir of San Francisco, the Grateful Dead take the stage of Winterland before a hometown audience. With the recent departure of drummer Mickey Hart, the Dead return to the initial quintet lineup of their first album. This was yet another transitional time for the band, following the release of their two most popular albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, when the band would return to playing shorter, more traditionally structured songs that emphasized vocals. Although this early 1971 era would feature less improvisation and experimentation overall, it would be a time of enormous growth in terms of songwriting, with Garcia and Robert Hunter becoming a prolific songwriting team and Bob Weir now contributing many of the songs that would come to define his place in the band. With many new lyric-driven songs entering the live repertoire and stripped back down to their core elements, this was perhaps the Dead at the most accessible time in their career. The live, self-titled Grateful Dead album from this era (commonly known as Skull & Roses from its iconic cover art) included an enticing "Dead Freaks Unite" invitation inside the gatefold cover. Decades before the internet, this initial mail correspondence between the group and its fans spawned the Dead Heads, one of the most enduring and committed fan communities of all time.
Note: The first set is also available here at Wolfgang's.
The second set of the evening is bookended with two of the most popular Workingman's Dead songs, but otherwise focuses exclusively on material unreleased at the time. Following "Casey Jones," which had become an FM radio staple, despite having overt drug references, the group launch into the pinnacle performance of this particular show, an incendiary cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle." This is a tour-de-force effort from all five members, especially Pigpen who truly inspires the other musicians here. For anyone questioning Pigpen's improvisational abilities, look no further, for here he propels the musicians with his voice alone resulting in an extraordinary version. What is also interesting here is that Bob Weir takes the first couple of lead guitar breaks, rather than Garcia, and he proves himself a unique lead player, taking the jam to intriguing places. When Garcia and Lesh join in full boar, this recording mix, with its airy crystal clarity, beautifully captures the instrumental interplay. This powerful performance is a must hear for anyone even remotely interested in Pigpen's years as the focal point of the band.
Bob Weir next leads the way with another of his new songs, "Playing In The Band," which, like "Greatest Story" from the previous set, would surface on his first solo album, Ace, the following year. Here it is heard in embryonic form, months before it became recognized as a jamming vehicle. They close the second set with what would soon become a standard for years to come, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" with "Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad" sandwiched in between. Here that sequence is just beginning to come to fruition. Nothing outstanding, but an enjoyable ride nonetheless. With an enthusiastic hometown audience clamoring for more, the Dead oblige with an encore of "Uncle John's Band." This is a loose and lovely reading when the song was barely a year old. They may not have realized it then, but this song and its all-inclusive sentiment would soon come to encapsulate the Grateful Dead experience for legions of Dead Heads around the world.