There was something special in the air for the Grateful Dead in 1971. Second drummer Mickey Hart had left for a brief hiatus while keyboardist Keith Godchaux and his wife, singer Donna Jean Godchaux, had yet to join the band. This left the core musical group of Garcia, Weir, Lesh, and Kruetzman free to play lean, mean, and without apology. Oh, and of course Pigpen was there too…
Ladies and Gentlemen…The Grateful Dead compiles material from their five night run at the beloved Fillmore East in April of 1971, spread across four wonderful discs. The playing is hot and tight and traverses so much musical material it boggles the mind. Like I said, there was just something in the air in 1971.
The sound is absolutely spectacular – beautiful multi track glory with a heavy dose of warm Fillmore ambience. Every instrument is clearly delineated and the stereo imaging is fantastic. Jerry’s guitar shines through brightly without ever sounding piercing or shrill. Meanwhile, you can actually hear the smooth woody tone of Bob Weir’s semi-hollow Gibson playing sympathetic rhythm. Lesh’s bass tone is beautifully fat and round, with just enough treble to keep things interesting.
And then of course there’s the audience which is downright ecstatic. Time after time the audiences on Fillmore recordings, specifically the Filmore East, are the greatest, most appreciative audiences in the world. Never before have I heard such a wonderful harmony of band and audience, both working together simultaneously to push the music further in greatness. Seriously, there is just something about these recordings that make the Dead sound like your best friends, sitting around in your living room just playing off the good vibes. It all just works.
As for the songs they are all spectacular and played with a tight but loose vigor that is nothing short of amazing. “Truckin'” kicks off the set with a fury and may just be my favorite version of all time. The band is playful and confident, evidenced by Weir’s laugh during one of the verses while the band just keeps churning away as they lean into a heavy blues soaked jam.
As the disc progresses we are treated to a ethereal “Bird Song” that takes all the time it needs, and smoking versions of “Me and My Uncle” and “Cumberland Blues.” Jerry is especially fiery and his years of banjo picking come shining forth in his needle point solos. A huge “Good Lovin'” is broken up by very nice “Drums” and a funky, heavy jam that reaches far out without ever leaving the groove. Pigpen treats us to a classic rave up and the disc closes with a wash of pure rock & roll.
Disc two lights up with a burning “Sugar Magnolia” that features Jerry going ballistic with his wah-wah drenched guitar solo. Man this sounds good! The crowd receives a perfect “Loser” warmly as the band winds it’s way through the song with a low lying swagger. I have yet to hear a “Loser” I didn’t like and this one is right up there with the best.
“Ripple” washes over the insanely appreciative crowd with heartfelt warmth and surely the stage must have been aglow with emotion. This song, perhaps more than any other on the set, truly exemplifies the connection between the Dead and their audience and further testifies to their enduring legend. This is followed by a perfectly played “Uncle John’s Band” that is easily one of my favorites and then a huge “Turn On Your Lovelight” closes out the disc in rock & roll splendor.
A sprightly played “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” opens disc three and finds the band just tearing through the material. “Hard to Handle” SMOKES with intensity and can easily contend with any other version for title of best (yes, even 8/6/71…). The band is tight, Pigpen is dead on with the vocals, and the jam is stellar.
“Dark Star” is met with much applause and the band goes completely cosmic. At 13 minutes it’s a somewhat short “Dark Star” and yet it’s perfectly played with just enough warm space to keep with the good vibes of the shows. “St. Stephen” is greeted with even greater applause and the band launches into a stunningly awesome sequence of “St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away.” The musicianship on display is spellbinding as the band winds it’s way through fantastic grooves and sinuous guitar solos. You can feel the synergy between band and audience and everyone is in on the vibe. Amazing.
Disc four features what many consider to be a career highlight for the Dead with “Alligator > Drums > Jam > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad > Cold Rain and Snow.” “Alligator” is special not only because it is finely played but also because it was the last time they played it. But what a way to go! The song drops off into some steady rolling “Drums” which lead us into a killer group mind “Jam” that sparkles with creativity and intensity. The end of the jam is nothing short of pure beauty and when the band hits “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” there is nothing but pure joy in the air.
“Casey Jones” literally tears the roof of the Fillmore with both the audience interaction and the stunning, steady rocking coda which is beyond smoking – the audience sounds like it is near tears in hysteria. Fillmore owner Bill Graham says a few choice words about the band and the audience and the band launches into an encore of “In The Midnight Hour” that is followed by a mournful, appreciative “We Bid You Goodnight” that closes out the disc, and the set.
Ladies and Gentlemen…The Grateful Dead is simply astounding. It is music like music should be and is enjoyable on multiple levels. The sound is stellar, the performances fantastic, and the entire vibe unlike any other live album you may have heard. This is the Grateful Dead as warm old friends that you would love to invite over for some good times. With all the Dead albums available, and trust me, there is a ton, this stands among the very best. I can’t recommend this enough for anyone with even a passing interest in good old fashioned rock & roll played at it’s purest level.
- “Truckin'” – 10:13
- “Bertha” – 6:27
- “Next Time You See Me” – 4:23
- “Beat It on Down The Line” – 3:35
- “Bird Song” – 9:18
- “Dark Hollow” – 3:31
- “I Second That Emotion” – 5:22
- “Me and My Uncle” – 3:39
- “Cumberland Blues” – 5:19
- “Good Lovin'” – 2:30
- “Drums” – 5:38
- “Good Lovin'” – 14:47
- “Sugar Magnolia” – 5:48
- “Loser” – 6:58
- “Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)” – 5:36
- “El Paso” – 5:34
- “I’m a King Bee” – 8:27
- “Ripple” – 5:15
- “Me and Bobby McGee” – 6:16
- “Uncle John’s Band” – 6:06
- “Turn On Your Love Light” – 22:18
- “China Cat Sunflower” – 4:52
- “I Know You Rider” – 6:07
- “It Hurts Me Too” – 6:46
- “Sing Me Back Home” – 10:03
- “Hard to Handle” – 9:24
- “Dark Star” – 13:55
- “St. Stephen” – 6:06
- “Not Fade Away” – 3:31
- “Goin’ down the Road Feeling Bad” – 6:27
- “Not Fade Away” – 3:30
- “Morning Dew” – 10:29
- “New Minglewood Blues” – 4:23
- “Wharf Rat” – 9:19
- “Alligator” – 4:04
- “Drums” – 4:11
- “Jam” – 9:32
- “Goin’ down the Road Feeling Bad” – 4:55
- “Cold Rain & Snow” – 5:47
- “Casey Jones” – 6:25
- “In the Midnight Hour” – 9:49
- “We Bid You Goodnight” – 3:55