Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - vocals, percussion, harmonica; Jerry Garcia - lead guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - rhythm guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Tom Constanten - organ; Bill Kreutzmann - drums; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion
In terms of the Grateful Dead's live performances during the 1960s, no run of shows better conveys their expressionistic collective improvisation than a 1969 engagement at Fillmore West that began on February 27th and ran for four consecutive nights through March 2nd. These concerts would be mined for what many consider to be the band's most important album, Live/Dead, as well as subsequent archival releases decades later. For anyone wondering why so many listeners were so powerfully drawn to The Grateful Dead, one only need listen to the Live/Dead album, which captured the band in inspired form during this first of several career creative peaks.
At the time, The Grateful Dead had grown to a seven piece unit that now included second drummer and percussionist Mickey Hart and keyboard player Tom Constanten, two musicians who expanded on the group's collective influences and added greater complexity and density to the music. It was also during this time that lyricist Robert Hunter became an integral ingredient, contributing lyrics loaded with fantastic imagery. Material like "Dark Star," "That's It For The Other One," "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven" were all coming to full fruition during this time. Hunter's lyrics and the musician's instrumental adventurousness created a seductive and intoxicating combination.
Presented here is most of the first set on the opening night of that now legendary run. The recording begins with the second song just getting underway, "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl." Recorded for the group's debut album two years prior, "Schoolgirl" is a fine showcase for lead vocalist/harmonica player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, whose background in traditional blues was an integral ingredient to the band's early sound. Conventional compared to almost everything to follow, this serves as a fine example of the band's roots, before launching into increasingly adventurous original material.
Following a brief sequence of Bill Kreutzmann's drum kit being more securely nailed down to the stage, the Dead continue with an engaging read on "Doin' That Rag," a first taste of the new material being recorded for their next studio album, Aoxomoxoa. A humorous monologue is heard afterward, in the form of Jerry Garcia rambling about how weird things seem on stage, prior to counting off the intro to "That's It For The Other One," the modular suite that opened their previous album, Anthem Of The Sun. Here listeners are treated to a taste of things to come in the second set (also featured here at Wolfgang's), as the band begins stretching out and flexing their improvisational muscles. Nearly three decades later this sequence would be mined in an alternate mix for the band's unreleased career retrospective box set, So Many Roads. It is not difficult to hear why this was selected as it represents the band taking this material soaring to a level only imagined on the Anthem Of The Sun album. Although the initial "Cryptical Envelopement" section is well played, it is following the brief drum interlude (only about 10 seconds long here) that the band explode into "The Other One." This begins capturing the ferocious intensity that the band was now capable of. With Lesh's forceful bass often leading the way and with Garcia delivering an endless barrage of fiery leads throughout, the band plows through this sequence, pummeling the audience for almost 10 solid minutes before returning to the "Cryptical" reprise for nearly as long. This is also inspired, chock full of Garcia's spiraling lead work. In fact the group is so instrumentally focused that Garcia never actually sings the vocal reprise which culminates in a wash of ringing chords and softer freeform noise to conclude the first set.
-Written by Alan Bershaw