Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead

Fillmore East 2-11-69

Grateful Dead/Arista

Like most sane folks, I’ve totally lost track of the amount of “officially” released Dead live albums. The gold rush started innocuously enough with the legendary Live/Dead disc, originally released in November of ’69, and has either exploded or gone haywire (depending upon your level of infatuation) from there. For my non-Deadhead (I fell asleep at the only Dead show I saw) bucks, though, it’s the early years that hold the most interest. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (who died from basically drinking himself to death in 1973), with his ragged vocals, occasional organ, harmonica, and deep love of the blues, especially the harder Chicago sound, was my man. And although there are other live discs that document his Dead years (Bear’s Choice, released in ’73, was the first), both this newly released live double disc and the aforementioned Live/Dead are the places to appreciate the manic blues energy Pigpen brought to the band.

This live album documents an interesting Dead show, since the band was opening the bill that night for the highly touted solo premiere of Janis Joplin’s new group. Each of these discs is their full opening (approximately one hour) set. Since they were under a fairly strict time constraint, their typically extended (some might say endless) free-form jams were cut slightly shorter on this February night. These shows also feature spooky organ from a guy named Tom Constantine, relegating Pigpen to subtle percussion — often cowbell — and sporadic harmonica and vocal duties. The New York crowd was also not the kind of laid-back hippie audience they were used to playing to in San Francisco. All this adds more bang to the Dead’s performance, goosing them to tighten up (only slightly though, since three songs still break the 12 minute mark, with “Turn on Your Lovelight” extending to just over 17), and condense the almost always overlong drum jam to just under three minutes. The sets are comprised of totally different tracks, but unfortunately Pigpen is almost totally vocally absent from the second later show.

This is still the most fascinating Dead line-up (I never bought their later, ever-present piano over the organ that dominated the keyboard parts here) to my ears, and the re-mixed sound here belies any kind of primitive live recording process that Live/Dead and especially Bear’s Choice were subject to when they were transferred to CD. Pigpen kicks it out on both “Lovelight” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” from the early show, and even though we could probably do without his and the band’s ear-cringing, off key, loose-limned romp through “Hey Jude” (eight full minutes of it), this is a mostly wonderful snapshot of the Grateful Dead when they still had something to prove and were having fun proving it. If you’re in the market for some live Dead, and don’t know where to start (a common problem) this gets the nod over the multitude of other, especially later, multi-disc shows.

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