Everyone who followed the Grateful Dead has their favorite year or two. Some people favor the raw, early psychedelia of 1968 and 1969. Others like the Brent years, the Bruce and Vince era, and almost everyone likes 1972. My favorite Dead year, hands down, is 1970, and I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to see the band’s evolution that year through five shows from four different runs at the Fillmore West.
It was definitely a transitional year, starting with the band smarting from the disaster of Altamont, the loss of many months of income when manager Lenny Hart absconded with their operating capital. In January, the band began what was arguably their heaviest year of touring with an east coast swing, a junket out to Hawaii, and an ill-fated three-night stand at New Orlean’s warehouse, during which the group experienced their storied bust at their hotel in the French Quarter. Keyboardist Tom Constanten elected to exit the group during the Hawaii junket, playing his last gigs with the group in New Orleans. Emotionally and financially bruised, the band retreated to San Francisco to regroup and begin recording their next album, Workingman’s Dead. A combination of financial necessity and the nature of the new material meant that the album was cut quickly and simply, a marked contrast to the extravagant experimentations of their previous two studio albums, Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun. With new road manager Sam Cutler, the group also began rebuilding their finances through a grueling year of touring that found them playing 134 dates in 20 different states, plus gigs in the UK and Canada. This was also the year they cemented their dramatic fan base in New York, playing 43 gigs in and around Manhattan. They also played a record number of hometown dates as well – at least 34 in the greater Bay Area.
The Dead also transitioned from a headlining act to an entire evening of entertainment as their shows expanded to include acoustic sets and Garcia’s side project with John Dawson and David Nelson, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Their expansive shows could run to five hours or more, incorporating folk, bluegrass and acoustic blues, the cosmic country of the NRPS, and the Dead’s ever expanding repertoire of originals and their unique takes on an arsenal of rock, country,R&B, and blues tunes. The Dead arguably reached their compositional and recording peak with the two classic albums recorded that year - Workingman’s Dead and its successor, American Beauty, which introduced a rich and enduring set of new compositions into their repertoire
As the year drew to a close, Mickey Hart was poised to leave the group, and they somewhat abruptly morphed into what Jerry Garcia described in a 1971 interview as a ‘a regular shoot-em-up saloon band.’ Anchored by single drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s remarkably fluid chops, they continued to thrive well into the seventies and beyond, but the intimate magic of those 1970 ‘Evenings with the Grateful Dead’ would ever be created again.
The Dead’s first hometown run of 1970 was at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, where they played their usual extended four-night weekend following an abbreviated set at the Family Dog on the Great Highway on Wednesday night as part of a Ralph Gleason-produced KQED TV Taping that was released years later as A Night at the Family Dog. As fate would have it, I ended up going to two of the four Fillmore West shows, through happenstance rather than by design. I went to the Friday show with my Dad (his first of about a dozen Dead shows), and was then invited to go to the Sunday night show with one of my high school friends and his father. Although it became commonplace for people to attend multiple Dead shows in later years, this was somewhat of a revelation for me, when it became apparent that the setlists of the two shows were almost entirely different (Although we take for granted the exhaustive chronicling of almost every Dead show today, such information was not readily available back then).
|Bigfoot 2/8/70 Photo: M. Parrish|
For the February run, the Dead topped a bill rounded out by southern Californians – Taj Mahal’s electric blues band and jazz rock quintet Bigfoot. Bigfoot’s opening set was vaguely psychedelic jazz rock (think the initial incarnation of Chicago Transit Authority). The quintet recorded a fine album on Winro Records before splitting. Some of the former members had some Grateful Dead connections. Keyboard/sax player Dave Garland was in one of the incarnations of Bob Weir’s side band Bobby and the Midnights, and guitarist/vocalist Art Munson (a multifaceted musician and producer who had worked with the Righteous Brothers before joining Bigfoot) sold many a blank DAT tape to Dead tape collectors in the 1980s and 1990s through his Cassette House. The group’s bassist, Virgil Beckham, went on to be an active participant in the Los Angeles Christian rock arena, playing in Richie Furay’s early evangelical band as well as with many other ensembles. I remember them putting on fine shows both nights, but don’t remember any specifics.
|Taj Mahal Band 2/8/70 - Jesse Ed Davis, Taj, and |
Chuck "Brother" Blackwell. Photo: M. Parrish
At the time of these shows, Taj Mahal had just recently released his double LP, Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home, and was touring with a phenomenal band that included guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, bassist Gary Gilmore, and drummer Chuck Blackwell. At Friday night’s show, Taj came out wearing an outfit very similar to that on the cover of that LP, with a broad brimmed hat, kerchief around his neck, workshirt and jeans. His all-electric set drew almost entirely from Giant Step and his previous album, The Natch’l Blues, and went down very well indeed with the crowd. Taj has always known how to work an audience. Davis was an amazing guitarist, the rhythm section cooked, and the overall chemistry of that band was as memorable as it was legendary. It’s a shame they didn’t stay together longer, but Taj seemed artistically restless during the early 1970s (and beyond, for that matter), trying out new bands and new sounds the way many people try on clothes.
Both nights, the Dead played a single, long electric set. I was able to hear most of Friday’s set, but regrettably only the first hour or so of the long, powerful show they played on Sunday. The Friday show featured all of the tunes that would appear on Workingman’s Dead except for the Pigpen showcase “Easy Wind.” This was the first time I heard the Dead’s slow, funky remake of “Cold Rain and Snow” and their joyous, jammed out rendition of “Dancin’ In the Streets.” It was also a good night for Ron “Pigpen” Meckernan, who trotted out a ferocious version of “Hard to Handle” as well as a long version of the recently resurrected Rascals chestnut“Good Lovin’” which was punctuated by a duel between Kreutzmann and Hart. Bob Weir’s cowboy persona was starting to fully flower at the time, and these were the first of countless Weir renditions I was to hear over the years of John Phillips’ “Me and My Uncle” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Once again, the centerpiece of the set was a long segment built on “That’s It For the Other One” which resolved into one of the earliest airings of the poignant Garcia-Hunter ballad “Black Peter.” We exited the house during that song, which meant that I once again missed the opportunity to see Pig strut his stuff for the concluding "Turn on Your Lovelight."
Sunday afternoon, I got a call from my friend Brooks that he and his dad were going up to the Fillmore, and asking if I wanted to go. Although I had not done so on Friday, I grabbed my camera and off we went. Given that it was a Sunday night, the crowd was lighter than it had been on Friday, so we stationed ourselves along the raised walkway to the right of the stage, which afforded a somewhat better view than the middle of the floor (However, one of the real benefits of the Fillmore West was that the sightlines were great everywhere).
|Taj Mahal 2/8/70 Photo: M. Parrish|
As I remember, the Bigfoot and Taj Mahal sets were pretty similar to those on Friday. For his Sunday show, Taj wore a very stylish African outfit, which I am ill versed to properly characterize, (but is visible in the photos I took that evening).
With the Dead onstage tuning up, I made my way down right opposite the PA speakers on stage left, just a few feet from the band. As has been documented widely elsewhere, Bill Graham enjoyed a complex love-hate relationship with the Dead, and both took the opportunity to bait the other whenever possible. To begin his introduction of the group, Graham presented Jerry Garcia with a framed photo of celebrity-of-the-moment Michael J. Brody, who had received headlines earlier in the week for giving much of his fortune away to various charities. Presumably Graham thought that Brody’s largesse might benefit the currently financially-strapped band and, although aspiring musician Brody got both a recording contract with RCA and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, he did not emerge as a benefactor for the Dead (and that was probably a good thing!).
|Smokestack Lightnin' -Bob Weir and Pigpen|
2/8/70. Photo: M. Parrish
On a roll, Graham needled the beleagured band further with his introduction: “Stars of stage, screen, and radio, fresh from a command performance in New Orleans, these are the Grateful Dead.” It was common for the Dead to build their sets slowly, starting out with something gentle like “Cumberland Blues” two nights before. It was often the hallmark of a really good night for the band when they began by pulling out all the stops, and that is just what they did Sunday night, jumping into a gritty, fifteen minute rendition of the seldom played Howlin’ Wolf field holler, “Smokestack Lightning.” As is often the case in the best Grateful Dead performances, the pace is set by Phil Lesh, whose loping bass lines drive the band along. Lead instrumental duties alternated between Garcia’s stinging lead guitar and Mckernan’s fluid harmonica playing. Near the ten minute mark, Garcia and Weir started trading licks back and forth as Pig briefly sat down at the organ before stepping back out front to sing the last verse.
|Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir 2/8/70|
Photo: M. Parrish
Since 1967, one of the Dead’s most effective numbers was their version of Bonnie Dobson’s anti-war ballad “Morning Dew.” Usually reserved for deep in the band’s set, that evening they chose to pull it out as a solution to how to follow up the dramatic standard set by the opening tune. Like “Smokestack,” the Dead played “Morning Dew” sparingly, and the versions they did around 1970 were particularly moving and majestic. At the time, Jerry Garcia’s voice still had a delicacy and vulnerability, and Pigpen’s unadorned organ support was a perfect foil for Garcia’s equally emotive singing and lead guitar.
Two songs and a half hour into the set, the Dead toned things down somewhat with the first Workingman’s tune of the evening, Garcia’s dark folk tune “Dire Wolf.” Although Garcia’s pedal steel was onstage both nights, and he played it on Weir-sung tunes at both the Thursday and Saturday shows, he stuck to his electric guitar here both on “Wolf” and Weir’s peppy run through “Me and My Uncle.” Unfortunately, the calls of Monday morning school and work meant that we left during this tune, with the bulk of the Dead’s set remaining to be played. Fortunately, tapes of this show circulate (and can be heard at archive.org), so I was at least able to hear recordings of the rest of the show years later.
|Bob Weir Fillmore West 2/8/70|
Photo: M. Parrish
Continuing in short tune mode, the band cruised through a peppy version of another relative rarity – their version of the old bluegrass standard “Sitting On Top of the World.” They retreated to familiar ground with the reliable pairing of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” Next up was another rarity, a slow, soulful version of the Elmore James blues lament “It Hurts Me Too,” sung with gusto by McKernan. Well past 1 AM, the Dead launched into the heart of their set – a seventy five minute segment that strung together a long, exploratory Dark Star, Saint Stephen (with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” sandwiched in the middle), and another long set-capping version of “Lovelight.” Although the best known Dead shows of this era were those from the Fillmore East the next weekend, released on Bear’s Choice and Dick’s Picks Volume 4, I think that the February 8 show is at least as good, if not better, than those shows. I wish I could’ve stuck around for all of it.