Grateful Dead

Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings

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Few concert runs (read: several shows in the same venue) are as highly lauded by Grateful Dead enthusiasts as February 27 through March 2, 1969, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Although the title Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings is misleading -- as they played there upward of two dozen times during the year -- practically every second of their eight-set, four-night stand is captured on this ten-CD box. The concurrent lineup included founders Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (vocals/organ/harmonica), Jerry Garcia (guitar/vocals), Bob Weir (guitar/vocals), Phil Lesh (bass/vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (percussion). In September of 1967 that quintet was augmented by Mickey Hart (percussion) and the following March Tom Constanten (keyboards) joined to complete the incarnation heard here. As group historian Dennis McNally notes in his liner essay, the music was being documented on "Prototype #2" -- the second 16-track machine made by the Ampex company. The recordings ultimately produced the lion's share of Live/Dead (1969), which McNally points out was "the first live 16-track album ever made." Indeed the two-LP collection redefined the Dead's role as sonic rangers who roamed the great wide psychedelic open. For the growing global audience of Deadheads, it offered a sampling of the Grateful Dead's practically indescribable and ever-evolving brand of aural alchemy. While no specific set list is adhered to, the songs can be loosely categorized with representations from the Grateful Dead's ever-expanding songbook with McKernan's R&B standards "Turn on Your Lovelight" and "King Bee." There are also a handful of selections from their previous three LPs, such as "Morning Dew" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," off of their 1967 self-titled debut. Anthem of the Sun (1968) yields the extended "That's It for the Other One" suite -- which glides gently into a sublime reading of "New Potato Caboose" on March 1 -- or the fiery McKernan-led medley of "Alligator" linked to the acidic blues-fuelled "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)." The final batch comes from the then-yet-to-be-issued Aoxomoxoa (1969) and is highlighted by the more compact numbers "Doin' That Rag," "Cosmic Charlie," the folk-based "Dupree's Diamond Blues," "Saint Stephen," and the haunting, baroque "Mountains of the Moon." The latter is featured in an acoustic setting, and on February 27 and March 1 it also serves up the ideal disposition for the centerpiece original "Dark Star." At the very heart of what made the Grateful Dead an anomaly in rock & roll was their ability to improvise and interact in order to make each and every experience different from the last, or the next. Over the course of the Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings are nine and a half hours of proof. As a sidebar, those interested in obtaining one of the 10,000 strictly limited editions should be prepared to scour online auction sites and other similar outlets, as the anthology sold out within weeks. Curious parties might find the Fillmore West 1969 three-disc distillation an adequate substitute. However, earnest Deadheads should take whatever measures necessary to obtain this package.