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LadyGent

The Album Cover

About The AlbumEdit

In the late '60s, New York's equivalent of Haight-Ashbury was Greenwich Village and various contiguous neighborhoods extending to the Lower East Side. It's where the head shops were - their walls and ceilings surrealistic galleries plastered with the latest eye-popping, brain-melting rock posters and black light creations; their air thick with sandlewood incense. There were great record stores galore, obscure way-off-Broadway productions in storefronts and converted warehouses. The area's folk and jazz clubs were still going strong, each drawing curious combinations of local freaks, grizzled bohemians, out-of-town tourists and suburban kids (like me) who flooded the area every weekend because it seemed so colorful, alive and slightly dangerous. The Electric Circus was the coolest club in the Village - you could literally feel it vibrating half a block away, pulsing with a uniquely New York energy. A few blocks away, at Second Avenue and Sixth Street - a Lower East Side neighborhood that still teemed with old Russian and Polish women in black dresses, poor and working folks of every ethnicity, Hell's Angels (whose New York headquarters was there), students and artists - stood the decrepit old Village Theater, a one-time Yiddish theater and, later, Loew's movie house, that had fallen into grimy disrepair through the years. Some local rock fans/would-be promoters put on a few shows at the Village in 1967 - the Grateful Dead played a two-night stand there during their second trip to New York, in late December '67 - but the theater didn't really become sacred, hallowed ground to the rock 'n' roll community until a San Francisco-based New Yorker named Bill Graham bought the place in the winter of 1968, spent a small fortune sprucing it up and re-christened it the Fillmore East.

It's too simplistic to suggest that the grand 2,400-seat Fillmore East was a San Francisco-style staging ground for Graham on the East Coast, because in the Bay Area the action was in ballrooms almost exclusively, and the Fillmore East was a classic theater, with an ornate high ceiling, plush seats and rococo filigrees; it was downright nice, particularly for a rock 'n' roll nightspot. And make no mistake about it - the Fillmore East was New Yawk all the way, with its raucous and unfailingly energetic and enthusiastic crowds. Yes, Graham brought in all the top San Francisco bands to play there (and without fail they killed New York audiences hungry for that funky-loose, acid-intense hit of day-glo Hashbury musical chaos). But out in the house, and in the warren of small rooms that made up what everyone agreed was the wildest backstage scene of any venue, and even on the street outside, with its never-ending freak parade, there was a buzz in the air that screamed NEW YORK!

What a great place to see a show. You could sit near the top of the huge balcony and see and feel the surges of electric energy blast off the stage and ripple through the crowd like a great sloshing wave that enveloped everything in its path. I remember the silky blue pot smoke haze, hanging in the air like gauze mosquito netting, being pierced by guitar notes, sharp as arrows, and blown into small tornadoes of dancing light by sharp drum cracks and the fat liquid thumping of Phil Lesh's bass. The light show (first the Joshua Light Show, and later, Joe's Lights) was impossibly big and always supremely tasteful. I don't recall much San Francisco-style liquid projection, but rather wonderful blocky splashes of color, two stories high, convoluted geometrics, serene visions of nature, quirky films and slides, and the glow of the massive screen casting rainbow hues on the faces of the audience as it created an ever-shifting "sky" behind the band.

The Dead played ten series of shows at the Fillmore East between June 1968 and April 1971, usually as headliners (over such bands as the up-and-coming Allman Brothers), but occasionally as openers (for the likes of Janis Joplin and Country Joe & the Fish). Typically, from '68 through mid-'70, there would be two shows a night, and the house would be cleared between concerts. By May of '70, though, the Dead had taken on their own opening act, the New Riders of the Purple Sage (which also featured Garcia and Lesh in the early days) and they pioneered the concept of "an evening with," so fans were assured of getting their dose of Dead without the long setups between acts of divergent musical styles. The crowds that packed the Fillmore East for Dead shows got to see the group's remarkable evolution/transformation from a good-time dance band with larger, much weirder aspirations, to the utterly mind-blowing, seriously psychedelic hurricane they became. The Fillmore was also witness to the group's gradual turn back toward its folk and country roots during the second half of 1969 and all through 1970. There were gentle acoustic sets - warm as grandma's quilt - at a number of these concerts, but the Dead never left their exploratory rock side for long; and it always seemed as if they jammed a little longer and a little more intensely at the Fillmore East.

By the Spring of 1971, Bill Graham had decided to close his Fillmores on both coasts, discouraged, he said, by the increasing financial demands of bands (not the Dead) and managers. The Dead were going through their own growth spurt - their 1970 albums Workingman's Dead and American Beauty had been bona fide hits, their reputation as an unsurpassed live act preceded them, and suddenly everyone wanted the group to play in their city or on their campus. Nevertheless, they continued to play theaters in many places, even as they edged into larger civic halls, college gyms and, eventually, sports arenas. But it made sense that the Dead would be one of the bands to bring the Fillmore East era to a glorious close, with concerts on five consecutive nights - their longest run there - April 25-29, 1971. (The actual last show, June 27th, featured The Allman Brothers, the J. Geils Band and others).

During the eight months since their previous Fillmore East shows, there had been big and small changes for the Dead, most notably the departure, in February 1971, of drummer Mickey Hart. During the band's tours in the winter and spring of '71, they were clearly still adjusting to this more streamlined unit - finding their footing, so to speak, but also discovering new power in the original core of four: Garcia, Lesh, Weir and Kreutzmann. (Pigpen played keyboards only sporadically during this period; pianist Keith Godchaux didn't come on board until October 1971.) There was lots of strong new material in the spring of '71, including future classics such as "Bertha," "Playing in the Band," "Bird Song," "Deal," "Wharf Rat," "Loser" and "Greatest Story Ever Told," while older tunes in the repertoire went through their natural evolutions. Pigpen was in fine fettle that spring; it was really his last truly healthy tour, and he can be heard on these discs charging with gusto through many of his best-loved numbers.

There was something in the air those five nights - besides the ubiquitous blue haze. I was lucky enough to attend two nights, April 26 and 28, and I remember a feeling of both celebration and sadness, but mostly the former, 'cause this was the Grateful Dead, after all, and you knew they were going to keep chugging along and take the party someplace else, even though our beloved Fillmore would be no more. There were guests three of the five nights - Duane Allman on night two; the Beach Boys, with their long beards and caftans, like something out of a Bible movie, the following evening; and the night after that former GD keyboardist Tom Constanten, who can be heard here adding his unmistakable touch to fine versions of "Dark Star" and "St. Stephen."

By the last night, though, it was back to the basic unit, and the Dead put on a show for the ages - the second set jam that night, from "Alligator" through "Cold Rain and Snow," is one of the Dead's most famous; somehow, miraculously, it managed to sum up the Dead's six year history at the same time it sounded completely fresh and pointed in a new direction. The communication among the core four is astonishing in places; it's the group mind at its highest and most expressive. And there, in just a few notes from Garcia's guitar before the first verse of "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," you can hear weariness, sorrow, joy and transcendence rolled into one, and you can't tell where one ends and the other begins - it's the long, strange trip reduced to its essence, but there's no time to stop, 'cause there's the next song to play and the rest of the gig to finish and the next city to go to. Still, it was a helluva way to say goodbye to a truly magical space.


TrackEdit

Disc 1:

  • Truckin'
  • Bertha
  • Next Time You See Me
  • Beat It On Down the Line
  • Bird Song
  • Dark Hollow
  • I Second That Emotion
  • Me and My Uncle
  • Cumberland Blues
  • Good Lovin'
  • Drums
  • Good Lovin'

Disc 2:

  • Sugar Magnolia
  • Loser
  • Ain't It Crazy (The Rub)
  • El Paso
  • I'm A King Bee
  • Ripple
  • Me and Bobby McGee
  • Uncle John's Band
  • Turn On Your Lovelight

Disc 3:

  • China Cat Sunflower
  • I Know You Rider
  • It Hurts Me Too
  • Sing Me Back Home
  • Hard To Handle
  • Dark Star
  • St. Stephen
  • Not Fade Away
  • Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad
  • Not Fade Away

Disc 4:

  • Morning Dew
  • New Minglewood Blues
  • Wharf Rat
  • Alligator
  • Drums
  • Jam
  • Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad
  • Cold Rain and Snow
  • Casey Jones
  • In the Midnight Hour
  • We Bid You Goodnight

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