Ladies & Gentlemen
Fillmore East - New York City
[April 25-29, 1971]
First Appeared in The Music Box December 2000, Volume 7, #12
Written by John Metzger
Just in time for last year's holiday season, the Grateful Dead released So Many Roads, a box set that touched upon the sum total of the band's career. This retrospective captured the essence of the group quite well, outlining its multifaceted stylistic approach while showing how this organic entity changed over time. The collection served as a terrific introduction to the band by highlighting outstanding renditions of some of its best-known and least-known songs.
One thing that So Many Roads lacked, however, was the cohesiveness that the Grateful Dead brought to each of its concerts. The group was always about being in the moment, and the band members routinely linked songs together in order to make a statement — be it musical or lyrical. Sometimes it was apparent. Other times it was more cryptic. Nevertheless, the continuity was always there.
That, of course can be said for many artists, but the Grateful Dead was truly a master of this, using spontaneity and improvisation to weave its brand of mystical wonder. Everything from a song's placement in a show to the inflections in the vocals to the extent and interaction of the jams tended to change from night to night — causing each concert to be its own unique and living entity.
Unfortunately, the best way for one to begin to understand this statement is to see, hear, and truly experience the Grateful Dead in a live setting, and today's jam bands just don't cut it. Often at a Dead concert, there were occurrences that transcended both band and audience and played into the atmosphere of a show. While these happenings simply could not be captured by a recorded medium, the music that evolved from these relationships was — making CDs, tapes, and videos the next best thing available.
Fortunately, there have been many releases put forth that more than adequately demonstrate the Grateful Dead at its best, of which Ladies and Gentlemen...THE GRATEFUL DEAD merely is the latest installment. This four-disc set reduces the Dead's performances in April 1971 at New York City's legendary Fillmore East to their barest essence. This five-night stand, which celebrated the venue's closing, has long been heralded by Grateful Dead fans as one of the band's finest hours. In fact, the entire first half of 1971 was a tremendous time in the group's history. Pigpen was still at the top of his game — though 4 months later he would take a sabbatical for health-related reasons — and the group benefited from its newfound interest in Americana roots-rock, which provided a tidy balance to its long, psychedelic journeys. These events all collided at the Fillmore, and the Dead's mammoth concerts blurred the lines between each of the individual events, making this entire run fold into a single body of work that bodes well for this box set release.
While these concerts aren't nearly as monumental as most Deadheads tend to think, each had its high points — that's for certain — though each had some rather rough edges as well. This is another reason why a box set that extracts the best selections from these performances makes perfect sense, and combined with the material that appears on the band's 1971 self-titled live album, there really isn't much left that is worth seeking.
So what can fans expect? First, there is a healthy dose of Pigpen that pervades this collection, and those who thoroughly enjoy what he brought to the Grateful Dead will not be disappointed in the least by this set. Here, he elevates the intensity of songs like Good Lovin' and Turn on Your Lovelight with his aggressive vocal style, croons his way through a tortured Hurts Me Too, and straddles the line between Otis Redding and James Brown on a sprightly Hard to Handle.
However, the true transcendent moments of Ladies and Gentlemen — and the ones that really make this set worthwhile — occur on the final two discs. Merle Haggard's Sing Me Back Home sparkles with tender beauty as do glorious renditions of Wharf Rat and Morning Dew. Likewise, the jam that winds its way out of Alligator is utterly delightful. It's easy to hear in which direction the music was heading. Yet, the group allowed the song to unfold in a deliberate fashion, briefly revisiting St. Stephen from the night before and then settling into the uplifting strains of Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad.
In addition, keyboardist Tom Constanten joined the band to reprise his role from the late '60s for a 35-minute medley of material, which forms the crown jewel of Ladies & Gentlemen. Dark Star fluttered with its typically aqueous feats of boundless splendor, and St. Stephen surged with the seething power of a supernova, which in turn gave birth to the volcanic rumble of Not Fade Away.
That said, there's no question that less avid fans would better serve themselves by opting for some of the other releases on the market — namely So Many Roads, American Beauty, Workingman's Dead, Hundred Year Hall, and Dick's Picks Volume 18. For the more serious collectors, however, Ladies and Gentlemen shouldn't be missed.
Ladies & Gentlemen available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box