Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings

Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead, 2005

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


For four nights in February-March 1969, the Grateful Dead redefined their version of what rock and roll was. Culling from those performances what would become the bulk of Live/Dead, Jerry Garcia and crew simply strapped their instruments on, dealt with whatever weirdness came their way, and let the music take them wherever the notes wanted them to go.

Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings is a limited edition set (long since sold out, in case you’re planning on scouring Amazon for it), presenting those four nights over the course of 10 CDs. As is often the case in the world of the Grateful Dead, some moments are simply magical, while others are best forgotten, though the latter case is rare on this set. (And, for the record: this set does not capture every performance the Dead did at the Fillmore West in 1969; more correctly, it completely covers this particular four-day run.)

The first two discs cover the early and late shows from February 27—the latter giving us “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” that would be featured on Live/Dead. If there were any “first night jitters” among the band, they were quashed before the short first set (read: three songs) had completed. The second set clocks in at just over an hour, but contains the more memorable jams and solid performances. For the long-time Deadhead, listening to this particular show might be akin to putting on a comfortable pair of slippers, and sets the bar high for the remainder of the run.

Discs three through five comprise the February 28th sets--all of which was never commercially released until this set. While it’s just as solid as the previous evening, it doesn’t quite have the same level of magic, which could be why none of the takes were used. (Possibly some of the equipment glitches that occurred during “We Bid You Goodnight”—which Garcia credited to the “electronic mice”—had something to do with that.) Heavy on performances from Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, it does introduce new songs into the set that weren’t played the previous day; although I didn’t learn to appreciate it until I was older, hearing “Alligator” (and the subsequent jam following “Drums”) was a highlight of the performance. Again, not a bad effort—just different in terms of the timbre and chemistry.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

By the time you get to discs six and seven—the two sets from March 1—the Dead had definitely gotten locked into the groove. In fact, they get a little too comfortable, as “Cosmic Charlie” is played at a breakneck pace, which just doesn’t fit the song. A welcome addition to the first set is “New Potato Caboose,” a hidden gem from the Dead’s early days.

But this particular day’s set is not without its flaws. I understand that some patches had to be used throughout this set to cover when, say, reels on the 16-track recorder had to be switched, and the patches were not as pristine of sources (though these often are fairly flawless on this one). But the sudden speed shift at the beginning of “Turn On Your Lovelight” was a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. And while the Dead were trying to keep their fans happy by keeping the show going, their ad-lib cover of “Hey Jude” fails to impress. (This particular song would not return in its entirety to the Dead’s repertoire until 1990, for one last performance.) Of the three nights to this point, this one is the low point—though not an abject failure, just a disappointment at times.

By the time you get to the final night of the four-night stand (discs eight through 10), Garcia and crew decide to mix things up a little bit. Instead of saving the “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen,” “The Eleven” and “Turn On Your Lovelight” for the second set, they open the show with it. And, with the exception of a brief lyrical flub in “St. Stephen,” it’s a concept that works. The only thing is that, again, they set the bar high for the second set.

The problem is that the second set, while good, sometimes feels like the Dead shot their load to start with, and just don’t have the ability to keep up with that momentum. When you open with “Doin’ That Rag,” you pretty much know the energy level isn’t going to be the same—even if they lead out of that with “That’s It For The Other One.” (Why I’m being told this version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is the one featured on Live/Dead, I don’t know; it just doesn’t sound the same to me.)

The final disc of the set does try to recapture the energy, with the trio of “Alligator,” “Drums” and “Jam” (the last of which has much more than a tease of “We Bid You Goodnight”). “Jam” also contains the most notable of the audio splices, seemingly coming from multiple sources running at different speeds… but I guess we shouldn’t complain. After all, who would have expected that the Dead would essentially be releasing every single note they played long after their demise?

In the end, Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings is the kind of set that appeals to the diehard Deadhead, while the edited three-disc set might be a better choice for those just getting into the whole scene. There is plenty to celebrate with this set, even if you end up hearing four different versions of the same song over a nine-hour period. But there is enough material contained therein to keep your interest pretty well locked until the final “goodnight” from Garcia and crew. If you can get your hands on it, it’s worth the investment.

Rating: B

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