Grateful Dead - Fillmore West 1969

Grateful Dead
Fillmore West 1969


The Music Box's #1 specialty package for 2005

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2005, Volume 12, #12

Written by John Metzger


To the untrained eye, 1969 may appear to have been a year of repetition for the Grateful Dead. After all, a cursory glance at the set lists for its concerts is apt to leave one with the impression that it tackled the same batch of material, night after night, in more or less the same order. This, of course, is only a small part of the story, and despite such superficial similarities, the music dramatically was torn asunder and reconstructed at each of the ensembleís performances. In fact, 1969 ó or, to be more specific, the four-night engagement between February 27 and March 2 at San Franciscoís Fillmore West, which just happens to be the subject not only of a comprehensive 10-disc box set but also of a three-CD collection of highlights ó was the culmination of a journey that truly began with the penning of Dark Star in late 1967. Indeed, within the songís simplistic framework, the groupís rapidly growing eagerness to explore collided with Robert Hunterís lysergic poetry in an intriguing fashion. Essentially, the tune became intertwined with the bandís DNA, thereby opening a portal that led to a possibility-filled universe.

Although the Grateful Dead ruminated upon Dark Star (or some segment thereof) more than 200 times over the course of its career, each interpretation was remarkably different from the next. Sometimes, the journey was rattled by a cataclysmic rupturing of the space-time continuum, through which leaked a torrential downpour of planetary debris; other times, it was a breathtakingly beautiful and utterly spiritual sightseeing sojourn across the vast terrain of the cosmos. However, no matter which path the band opted to take through its open-ended composition, the view consistently was strikingly scenic. Itís no wonder, then, that in the minds of the Grateful Deadís fanatical followers, Dark Star was the groupís signature song.

Without a doubt, by the time that the concerts featured on Fillmore West 1969 were held, the Grateful Dead had perfected its freewheeling improvisational approach, and nearly everything it touched dripped with the psychedelic transcendence that was forged within the swirling vortex of Dark Starís revolutionary crucible. Arguably, then, the collection contains the most primal music that the band ever unleashed. Although it remained tethered to the R&B-flavored roots favored by harmonica and keyboard player Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, the group had made tremendous strides in pushing the boundaries that defined its music outward in all directions. Songs such as James Mooreís Iím a King Bee and Sonny Boy Williamsonís Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, for example, were given an intensely churning edge, while (Turn on Your) Lovelight was stretched exhaustively into a whirling fireball that bore little resemblance to the tune that was popularized by Bobby "Blue" Bland. Elsewhere, the contemporary folk of Bonnie Dobsonís Morning Dew presented an affecting juxtaposition of the rumbling devastation and haunted mourning of an apocalyptic future, and Rev. Gary Davisí Death Donít Have No Mercy conjured a devotional fervor that tried in desperation to keep the hellhounds at bay.

Still, it was the Grateful Deadís original compositions that, while lacking the structure of its later works, truly highlighted its experimental inclinations. Blossoming out of the delicate, acoustic folk of Mountains of the Moon, the rendition of Dark Star that appears on the second disc of Fillmore West 1969 is utterly magnificent, and there are three other equally astounding versions of the song on the more expansive Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings. Guided by Jerry Garciaís probing lead guitar solo, the band proceeded to immerse itself within a burbling cauldron of primordial ooze. Gliding past the outstretched arms of spiraling galaxies, the ensemble took a detour to frolic in the garden with St. Stephen, careened off the rambunctious delirium of The Eleven, and settled back into the gravity-free overtones of Dark Star ó only to become submersed within the spiritual glow of Death Donít Have No Mercy. Kissed by the variegated electrical impulses of psychedelics, synapses burning on all cylinders, the collective painted a multi-dimensional portrait of heaven and hell that threatened to shatter the illusion of life itself.

As resplendently translucent as the Dark Star-themed segment was, Thatís It for the Other One found the Grateful Dead wrestling with a raw, raucous, supercharged dynamo of seismic fury. Anchored by a thunderous stomp of drums and percussion, the song exploded in a white, hot, atomic flash, its molten melody tossed back and forth between Garcia and bass player Phil Lesh, while Tom Constanten painted its corners with shimmering curls of cool, blue organ. So dexterous was the band that it could stop on a dime and spin off in a myriad of directions without ever sounding disjointed. Indeed, the nearly 30-minute jam that leaps from Alligatorís conclusion turns so many corners that it effectively summarizes the entirety of the groupís four-concert engagement at the Fillmore West.

Having reached its objective, the Grateful Dead soon would begin to scale another mountain, and by the end of the year, many new ideas would be introduced that would assume greater weight within the groupís repertoire and eventually lead to the development of its Americana classics Workingmanís Dead and American Beauty. Although the band never lost sight of its improvisational disposition, it undoubtedly became more refined and mature in its approach. After all, the unadulterated inventiveness and unbridled exuberance of youth does not last forever, nor can it truly be manufactured. Earlier this year, the Grateful Dead issued The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack, a five-disc compilation of material from its October 1974 farewell concerts at Winterland, and while it was a superlative package that fused together some of the finest music that the ensemble ever made, there simply never will be another collection that is as monumentally groundbreaking as Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings. Not surprisingly, the box set sold out two months prior to its official date of release, and as a result, the rest of the world will have to settle for the condensed Fillmore West 1969, which, incidentally, is still a remarkable consolation prize. starstarstarstarstar


Of Further Interest...

Grateful Dead - Fillmore East, February 11, 1969

Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks 26: April 1969 in Chicago and Minneapolis

Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks 4: Fillmore East, February 13-14, 1970


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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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