Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Grateful Dead - Fillmore West, 1969 (Rhino, 2006)

This three-disc set tracks the Grateful Dead's performances during the height of their early power. The material collected here had been previously bootlegged by the Dead's legion of collecting fans, but this official release cherry picks the finest performances and adds lengthy liner notes and many color photographs to create a nice package. While the music contained herein demonstrates the breadth of the bands music, certain things do stand out. For me it was Ron "Pigpen" McKernan lending the band some bluesy credibility that they may have otherwise lacked. Pigpen plays swirling organ and some strong harmonica throughout the music, but is heard to best effect on the blues songs he took lead vocals on.

He leads the band through an absolutely charging version of Bobby Bland's "Turn on Your Lovelight" and sings with great authority on Muddy Waters' "King Bee" and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." The rest of the band is certainly not to be undone, as the music alternates between spacey on "Mountains on the Moon," "Dark Star" and blasting rock and roll on tracks like "Cosmic Charlie" and the go-for-broke final concert ending medley jam. In a sense this music would be the high water mark of the band's early period, with a shift to acoustic instruments and the first of many personnel additions and subtractions on the way. Still, this is a great snapshot of one of the finest live-performance bands in rock and roll history.

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