Following several years of musical experimentation and exploration, the dawn of the 1970s would begin a period of transition for the Grateful Dead, where they would expand the range of their music and in doing so, begin reaching a broader audience. The band's first album of the new decade, Workingman's Dead, and then American Beauty, which would follow later in the year, would signal the beginning of lyricist Robert Hunter's most prolific and inspired era, where his writing took on a new focus and clarity. Likewise, the Dead's music was taking on a new focus and clarity, as they began consciously returning to their roots, embracing acoustic instrumentation and incorporating stylistic elements from the late 1950s/early 1960s folk, country, and blues revivals that initially inspired bandleaders Jerry Garcia and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, to begin playing music together. This influx of new songs and expanded diversity of material led to a revamping of their live performances. Their live performances began featuring multiple sets, providing the musicians the opportunity to play in several configurations. Often billed as "An Evening with the Grateful Dead," their concerts were exactly that - a full evening of broad ranging music that often ran until the wee hours of the morning. For the first time, the group began performing live acoustic sets that showcased new material as well as the traditional style folk and blues favorites from their past. This was often followed by a set of country-flavored rock from Dead-family offshoot band New Riders of the Purple Sage, in which Jerry Garcia was exploring the pedal steel guitar. The night would continue with one or occasionally two full-blown electric sets, where the band would often present newer material and tightly arranged songs followed by material that facilitated improvisation and experimentation.
Many of the Dead's most inspired performances that year occurred at Fillmore East, where the New York City audience always embraced them. The group also enjoyed the Fillmore East for its crew and sound system, which at the time was superior to every other rock venue in America. Indeed it was the only venue where the Dead didn't demand using their own sound equipment, making the overall working experience more comfortable. The Grateful Dead did several multi-night runs at Fillmore East over the course of the year and these performances remain some of the most diverse and impressive of their entire career. The final Fillmore East run that year occurred over the course of four nights in September. For Jerry Garcia, who was also a NRPS member at the time, these concerts would become marathons of endurance, with this final night of the run being a prime example. Over the course of the evening, the Dead would deliver one of the most extraordinary setlists of their entire career, featuring an abundance of fresh new material (much of it sourced from the Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) as well as several rarities, making this performance a fascinating listen from beginning to end.
Following one of the most remarkable acoustic sets in the entire history of the band (also available here at Wolfgang's), which was followed by a set featuring the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Grateful Dead again take to the Fillmore East stage for a full blown electric set. This final set of the evening begins with a warm-up exercise on "Casey Jones," one of their newer songs at the time. Garcia next leads the way into "China Cat Sunflower" which develops into a hot little jam, with both Garcia and Weir trading interlocking leads lines, before tearing off into "I Know You Rider."
A rather mellow version of "Candyman" follows, serving as a breather after the fireworks that preceded it. Garcia delivers a fine concisely crafted solo here, before the band dips way back into their catalogue for a much higher velocity reading of "Sitting on Top of the World," which only surfaced on rare occasions during the early 1970s. An extreme rarity follows in the form of "Big Boy Pete," a song the Dead only played a handful of times ever. Originally a 1957 doo-wop hit for the Olympics, here Pigpen covers lead vocals, with Garcia, Weir, and Lesh providing loose three-part harmony. Despite being ragged, this is the most engaging version that the Dead ever played, with the rhythm section of Lesh, Kruetzman, and Hart adding a serious punch. This would be the last time Pigpen would ever sing this song, and the group wouldn't attempt it again until November of 1985, more than fifteen years later.
Bob Weir takes another lead vocal for a quick romp through John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle," before Pigpen again fronts the band for another Workingman's Dead number, "Easy Wind." Clocking in at nearly 11 minutes, this is twice the length of the studio recording and one of Pigpen's most shining moments during this performance. Here the group begins to more seriously flex their jamming muscles with both Weir and Garcia developing dual lead guitar work, with Weir not only holding his own, but often leading the way and inspiring Garcia's direction. It's a remarkably engaged performance that gives a hint of the fireworks still to come.
Another new classic surfaces next in the form of "Sugar Magnolia," which would soon arrive in definitive form on American Beauty. The band's enthusiasm for this new Weir composition is obvious, and with Garcia engaging his wah-wah pedal, this really takes off in its seventh performance ever. This is followed by another new song destined for the American Beauty album, "Attics of My Life." The most vocally challenging of any song in the band's repertoire, it is remarkable to hear them even attempt to perform it live. While it could never surpass the beauty of the vocal arrangement on the studio recording, the band takes it nice and slow, and despite being vocally tentative, delivers an engaging performance of another song that would rarely ever be attempted again. Weir fronts the band again for a rather perfunctory read on Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," before they get down to business with a monstrous jam to close the show.
This begins with a highly energized reading of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," which features plenty of inventive jamming. With bassist, Phil Lesh, often propelling the direction, this heads in many unexpected directions over the course of nearly 12 minutes. Although the debut of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" was still several weeks away, listeners will clearly hear the band developing that transitional jam that would lead to the pairing up of these two songs for years to come. Instead, here the jam on "Not Fade Away" segues directly into one of the most adventurous versions of "Caution: Do Not Stop on Tracks" that the band ever played. Pigpen is in great form; rapping away for nearly 10 minutes, staying fully engaged while an exploratory jam ensues all around him. Both Pigpen and the band explore wide ranging territory here, much of it unique to this performance, eventually blazing away for nearly 18 solid minutes. Towards the end, Pigpen returns to the forefront, playing blues harp most impressively, before they eventually exhaust every idea. To solve the problem of where to go next, they get even weirder by segueing directly into a barrage of groaning feedback and noise! Lasting well over six minutes, this is the Dead in serious mind bending form. The improvised feedback and distortion eventually dissipates into silence, at which point Garcia leads the vocalists into a full length a cappella rendition of "We Bid You Goodnight."