February 16, 2018

Buzz-Saw Music: Fillmore East, June 14, 1968 (Guest Post)

Essay by Ben Dyment.

The Background

If one-line summaries were being passed around on this band, ‘for years I ignored them’ would be mine. I cast the Dead aside as one of ‘those’ bands I’d heard enough half-truths and opinions about, usually through the eyes of other musicians and would-be critics. As I made my way through other SF bands of the same era, I still saw them as something else, the ones with such a towering reputation that it blotted out whatever origins they may have had. The few times I’d try playing a Dead song, it just seemed so removed from those other bands - there was none of the same energy and bright-eyed rush I expected to find.

It wasn’t until a trusted source recommended Live/Dead that I finally lost my inhibitions and started to get into them. It sounded weird, stretched out but thematic, interesting. Enough so that I kept going, digging into other ‘69 shows, ‘70, going backwards, discovering the Acid Tests, Aoxomoxoa, and finally Anthem Of The Sun, a record of extreme innovation and fractured beauty that stood up with other so called ‘difficult’ albums I had previously assimilated, such as Twin Infinitives by Royal Trux, Harsh ‘70s Reality by The Dead C or Faust’s The Faust Tapes. These were works meant to be ascertained, analyzed, deconstructed. To me it had as much in common with those as it did with albums of the era like Crown of Creation, Wow, White Light/White Heat, Electric Ladyland, etc. I still have little interest in anything past the Workingman's Dead era, mostly because they seemed to lose a lot of the propulsion and energy that initially sustained them - I know it’s heresy among some, but given the choice between a ‘St. Stephen’ from ‘77 vs. one from ‘68 roaring out of the amps, I know what choice I’ll make.

Forced to pick one year of Dead shows to stick to, I’d go with ‘69, but there’s something special about ‘68 that slipped away like ether relatively quickly. With the introduction of the Anthem songs to the set, the music grew larger, longer, looser and just plain weirder. There was increased concentration on long segues, turning songs into suites and running entire shows into one longform piece. The whole notion of taking everything further and farther out became their raison d’etre.

Of the many surviving tapes from this era, this is easily one of the greatest. Friday, June 14th, 1968 marked the Dead’s first appearance at the Fillmore East in New York City, playing opposite The Jeff Beck Group (and The Seventh Sons). [1] To anyone else, following the powerhouse Beck Group would have been cause for concern, but the Dead were never the average band.

One of the first things that appealed to me about this show was the sound of the surviving tape. It’s accepted that the general populace, even those inclined towards live shows, don’t really have a stomach for anything too ‘lo-fi’, and while I can understand that feeling, I definitely don’t share it. To me, a tape like this is the epitome of what I search for; I want to hear the sound of the room, especially when we’re talking classic ballroom venues, built for sound and volume. Sometimes the vocals get drowned out, the bass turns to mud and midrange is king, but to hear the backline blowing off the stage, bouncing off the ceiling and onto the walls is crucial, and lets you really get a sense of how everything really sounded. There’s a partial soundboard of Caution going into the final Feedback, [2] but I’m not going to bother with it here because frankly it doesn’t carry the same weight for me - it’s too dry and you lose all the atmosphere of the room and no sense of audience perception. The saturated, lo-fi nature of the AUD source only serves to push the sound into a more accurate approximation of how it felt to be pounded and blown back by this juggernaut of psychedelic SF noisemakers. They didn’t just want you to sit sanguine and approach the music from an intellectual standpoint, they wanted you to dance and when they moved into stranger territory they wanted to blow your head off too for good measure.

The Show

For a band whose first album was a regional footnote at best and whose second album was still a month away from release, it wouldn’t have been out of line for a concertgoer to assume they’d hear some familiar material, but the Dead never cared much for that in this era; in fact, save for the cover of ‘Lovelight,’ the entire set was comprised of relatively new, unreleased material. [3]

Faced with having to follow The Jeff Beck Group’s set, they decided to go for sheer power and blow the roof off with an opening ‘Feedback’, one of the first things people still talk about when discussing this initial Fillmore appearance. Over the years it’s been suggested that this is a false song order, just a by-product of tape trading splicing the closing ‘Feedback’ in half to fit a side, but a simple listen to the SBD fragment reveals the fallacy of such a claim. Whatever the case may be though, let the tape speak for itself.

Even the most crazed ‘Viola Lee’ openers of ‘68 don’t quite compare to this introduction. The crashing wave of electric carnage hits like a neutron bomb, instantly putting everybody in the building on high alert and reducing all that went on before the Dead to another time and place – that was then, this is now. It’s cavernous and relentless, saturating the stage and the ears, the band playing the amps playing the band, letting the sound spread out and stick to every surface, slowly winding down to suggest they’re going somewhere further but giving no indication where that might be; you’re stuck in no man’s land, hanging on in the immediacy of the moment, until Phil starts slowly strumming the opening chords to ‘The Eleven.’

‘The Eleven’ is a song so ingrained in most people's heads as part of a certain running order that you can’t quite imagine they’d lead into it this way, but they do, starting in with a little hesitation before blowing into the initial round of calliope psych melody, Weir and Lesh digging into the rhythm tight and slick while Garcia dances around his lines with a torrent of major key runs - you can just picture him doing his tightrope move, bobbing back and forth along the stage. The vocals come in and are admittedly pretty deep in the depths of the mix, sounding more like ghosts of the undead, but it’s no problem, just hearing them play is good enough. Everyone is moving fast, propelling the music headfirst into torrid, brutal and boundless delirium.

The Dead had their (literal) Wall of Sound era, but I tend to associate 1968 with the ‘wash of sound’ style, particularly in Pigpen’s keyboards. When you hear something like ‘The Eleven’ on this tape, the whole band is locked into each other’s nuances well enough that it’s almost difficult to ascertain individual movements unless you’re well acquainted with the material. When Constanten showed up in the following months, the keyboards shifted towards the baroque style of Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead, which was great in its own right, but sometimes it’s the ‘68 material that’s the most enjoyable, still a little scuzzy, rawer, more appealing.

‘St.Stephen’ is still relatively new, having only debuted a month or so before, [4] and you can hear its fresh nature as the band pounces into it with an audible enjoyment. Garcia jumps the gun in eagerness to start it up, and they run it up at a quick pace. It’s almost a ‘blink and miss it’ kind of situation, especially for an unfamiliar audience, but the light and playful nature of the music is like daylight coming in through the rafters, especially after the previous act’s pentatonic blues jams. As it gets underway it starts to sound like the band is just picking up more and more energy - Garcia’s solos are so fluid and constant they sound like sticking your whole head in an electrical socket and keeping it there. Weir is throwing rhythm chords down not even trying to keep up, just keeping a solid background down. The whole band sounds like the hand of God crushing a mountain to make a river, and plays with a confidence evocative of this period; even when they don’t know where they’re going, they always sound like they’re doing it with belief that they’ll get farther towards a goal. The whole band rises in crescendo to meet the highest parts of Garcia’s solo and then one graceful upswing chord and - it’s done, a clean break, something that ‘Stephen’ wouldn’t get for much longer.

‘Alligator’ starts up with a fade-in - whether or not this means we’re missing something in between is unknown, but who cares, it’s on and ready, Kreutzmann and Hart rolling into the opening beats like they’ve been playing it all their lives before Garcia rolls into his opening riff. The whole song is an aural kaleidoscope, pure painted sound, as the band moves like a train that won’t stop for anybody, content to ride at the speed of sound. There’s this one little part in ‘Alligator’ that always gets me, right when Garcia starts a run and the whole band does this lurch, drop and hit back against his two notes. Well, he’s dead accurate this night and it comes off beautifully, in fact all his leads are like coiled wire on this one, liquid ease. The complacency that dogged them in later years is nowhere to be found here; this is dance music, pure and cosmic. Garcia explained as much in an interview circa March 1967, stating that, “At this point, the experimentation we’re doing now isn’t a matter of drug experimentation; we’re experimenting with music.”

Out of ‘Alligator’ comes a surprise ‘Lovelight’ segue, one that Phil seems to initiate, though that’s just going by aural assumption. Pigpen’s vocals were pretty drowned out in ‘Alligator’ but are loud and present now, commanding from the stage. They get into it like they’re getting paid by the note, which considering who was running the Fillmore, they probably were. It’s loose yet still tight, heavy lightness; Garcia’s not sticking to any strict tempos here, he’s running through his repertoire but going fast and loose with the rules and it sounds fun. After a couple minutes of breakneck soloing, he comes back down and the band swings back into the main melody. Pigpen gets the audience clapping along and they do so generously - you can hear the ambience of the room in this part and hear the enthusiasm of Garcia riffing against Pig’s rap, Kreutzmann and Hart staying soft, Weir angling for a harmony. Pig starts in the “lookin’ everywhere” lines and almost threatens to spiral into a total collapsed rhythmic stutter before they pull back and restrain, edge it out just a little more, play off the tension, and then it’s off to the next number.

By the time the band breaks into ‘Caution’, all bets are off. Garcia signals the change with a ham-fisted power chord assault worthy of Townshend at peak operating power, his Les Paul practically snarling with unbridled fury. Lesh picks up the mood and slides into a ceaseless, undulating pattern of notes, saturating the low-end with a constant stream of sound. Hart and Kreutzmann stick to the top end percussion, letting the guitarists take center stage in the mix, maintaining a rolling coital clashing rhythm. Garcia’s barrage of lead lines are so densely packed that he begins to sound like he’s overdubbing himself in real time, no room to think, just feel. Some of it reminds me a little of my absolute favourite ‘Dark Star’, from a show in Monterey exactly one year later, in that they’re both fantastic examples of everything coming together to propel his playing into further reaches, his fingers running independently of his brain like a somnambulist playing through his sleep, oblivious to the external world. In a recent interview, Mickey Hart summed up this feeling as such:

“The thing is that we always left the room – consciously or unconscious – with improvisation. [...] You can do whatever you want in a song as long as you identify the song with a beginning and ending – sort of, kind of [laughs] – and then say, “Okay, nothing in this is crystallized.” [...] We don’t have to play four-minute songs. We were marginalized and laughed at and misunderstood for many years, but it didn’t matter. It really didn’t. We actually took great pride in that – that we were breaking ground. It all depends what you’re after in music. It’s easier to play the same songs every night. But is it the easy part of music? Perhaps.” [5]
As the freeform excursion starts to migrate back towards familiar areas, Pigpen comes back in with a brief harmonica interlude, initially just playing against the drums before Garcia starts playing off him - he pulls a slide from his hat and runs wide with it before it disappears again - did he even have a slide or was he rubbing up against the mic stand or something? For a couple minutes it’s unlike most performances of the song, totally spaced out and in its own realm. “She told me that all you need, all you need, oh.” They pick up speed again and now Garcia’s guitar is melting, dying on the vine - it almost threatens to turn into a ‘Dark Star’ to my ears. The closing segment just after Pig sings where it sounds like they’re playing in reverse is always one of my favourite moments in ‘68 shows; I’m always left impressed by how they manage to pull that off live - when you hear ‘Anthem’ you figure it’s just a product of tape manipulation, but they really did it with nothing more than imagination and some strategic volume knob rolls.

The closing ‘Feedback’ once again carries a sound like the band is somehow playing back the whole set and dragging it through the tape machine in real time, the amps howling back but groaning along at the wrong speed, pouring out like a Velvets show (ironic considering they were on the Dead’s turf during this time, playing at the Avalon in June ‘68). Hart and Kreutzmann are spewing out fills until the whole band seems to stop and turn to catch their looming shadows -  the percussion chimes start slowly tingling up the spine, feedback still ghosting around the room but mixed up, careful, studious, slow drones eloquently sinking in rhythmic gnashing, and then - the final chimes, a tape slip and applause. [6] It’s the Anthem Of The Sun, circling ‘round forever.


The Seventh Sons opened, followed by the Jeff Beck Group. The Grateful Dead headlined, closing the show. There were early and late shows (8:00 & 11:30), and the tape is from the late show. So far no contemporary review of the shows has been found.

[2] A 30-minute fragment, released on the Fillmore West 1969 bonus disc.

[3] Though ‘Alligator’ and ‘Caution’ weren’t released until the Anthem album, New York concertgoers had very likely heard them in previous Dead shows, so the material wouldn’t have been all-new to Dead fans who’d seen them before. (The Dead had played a run at the Electric Circus and a couple free shows a month earlier, and several shows at the Palm Gardens and the pre-Fillmore Village Theater back in December.)

[4] Two other early ‘St Stephens’ from this month (and a fragment of a third) can be heard on this collection – tracks 1, 31, and 40. These ‘Stephens’ have the same arrangement as the 6/14/68 version, but are not as fiery.

[5] ‘Dead Notes #15: The Mickey Hart Interview’, Aquarium Drunkard, January 2018 -
[6] The ghostly chimes (glockenspiel?) can be heard better on the audience tape than the SBD. Afterwards, the SBD tape captures an announcer naming the bandmembers as the audience calls for more.

The photos are from the Shrine in Los Angeles, May 1968; photographer unknown.