Like many of my generation, I was a Dead-Head. I bought all the albums, saw them live on a number of occasions (the first being in Wembley on the 1972 European tour), and followed their chequered (but always interesting) journey to its conclusion. Since Jerry’s death there has been a veritable torrent of live concert releases, which I’ve mostly ignored: I don’t mind the survivors making an honest buck, but when we get to “Dick’s Picks Volume 35” things are getting seriously out of control!
When it came to their recordings, one LP defined the Dead: their 1969 double album “Live/Dead”. I bought it on vinyl when it came out, and almost wore it out; later I got a cassette copy; still later, a CD. I knew it note-perfect: in the days before Walkmen and iPods I could “play” the entire thing in my head – even the glorious drum duet in “Lovelight”. It’s one of the three greatest live rock recordings in my collection. The other two are the live disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma-Gumma” and Dire Straits’ “Alchemy”. It’s my musical Mona Lisa: quirky, but perfect.
A few days ago, I received an email from my friend Paul Smith in England. Paul’s the only fellow-student from RGS High Wycombe that I’m really in touch with, and our relationship has always revolved around music. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s we used to share our stash of imported American LPs, marvelling at the work of bands like Mad River, H.P.Lovecraft, and Captain Beefheart. Since we re-established contact a few years ago, we’ve traded info on progressive and metal music. (I wish Paul would write a blog, but he’s too busy doing “real” rock journalism. Oh, well.)
Paul’s email was very simple: did I still listen to “Live/Dead”, and if so was I aware of Fillmore West 1969, a triple CD from the same set of shows that yielded the material for “Live/Dead”?
I wasn’t. I bought it. And I was blown away. It was as if I had suddenly found that Leonardo had painted not just Mona Lisa, but a whole set of portraits of Mona and her sisters.
As for the music, I can’t do better than quote Thomas Ryan’s review at Amazon.com:
During a four-night run from February 27- March 2, 1969, in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead were the perfect band in the perfect place at the perfect time.
The `Live/Dead” album was a two disk set, approximately eighty minutes in length. At the time, this was fairly lavish, but by necessity, it represented only a fraction of the music from this historic stand. “Fillmore West” is compiled from the best parts of those shows that did not `make the cut’ for “Live Dead”. The 3-CD package generously triples the playing time of the original album, and structures itself as if it were one incredibly long, exhaustive set. A 20-minute version of “Dark Star” is the centerpiece, and segues beautifully into “St. Stephen,” followed by “The Eleven,” all of which capture the rich, exploratory nature of a band that was at the nascent crest of its powers. A near-perfect 23-minute version of “That’s It For the Other One” precedes a 25-minute track simply entitled “Jam”.
I’ll never know these newly-discovered performances note-for-note, as I do “Live/Dead”, but that’s OK. In fact the intense familiarity with the original work makes it even more startling to listen to this new collection. One of my favourite classical works is Handel’s “Chaconne and 21 variations” for harpsichord; the same kind of exploration comes through in the way the Dead’s treatment of these pieces evolved. (Intelligent design? Hmmm.)
Anyway, if you’ve become jaded by the constant release of live recordings by the Dead, check this one out. It’s the real thing.