Fifty-one years ago tonight, the Grateful Dead triumphantly closed a four-night run at Bill Graham‘s Fillmore East in New York City where, as they’d done throughout the brief residency, they split their performance into an acoustic set for the first half of the show, and electric for the second. While the entire run was filled with impressive performances of new songs that appeared on their Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty studio masterpieces released that year, this show’s setlist practically a perfect snapshot of the band’s songbook from the Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era.
In addition to the presence of a healthy-sounding and energetic Ronald ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, the September 20th, 1970 performance also stands out as a truly great Dead show thanks to its sublime, quality audio which showcases the warm clarity of Garcia and Weir’s acoustic instruments along with their vocal harmonies on the Americana cowboy tunes. Listeners should note that the band does not have access to the soundboard recordings for this show, so it’s not perfect, but it does deliver.
New Riders of the Purple Sage were also on the bill that evening, but more notably, the Dead were joined by special guests David Grisman and David Nelson on double mandolin throughout the acoustic first set, which opened with “Uncle John’s Band”, “Deep Elum Blues”, and “Friend of the Devil”. The unplugged set continued with “Big Railroad Blues”, a Bob Weir-led “Dark Hollow”, and Robert Hunter‘s beloved ballad “Ripple”. The set also included the Dead’s last-ever acoustic take on “Truckin'”, followed by an exceptional “Cumberland Blues”, a 10-minute “New Speedway Boogie”, and tear-jerking “Brokedown Palace” with Pig on the piano to send fans into set break. Listeners will be quick to notice Garcia used an electric guitar on “To Lay Me Down”, “Cumberland Blues”, and “New Speedway Boogie”.
The band returned in force with their electric instruments to open the second half of the show with another new tune in “Casey Jones”, and confidently charged their way through their classic “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” combination to kickstart set two. Other songs played in the second set which would go on to appear on American Beauty with its release almost one month later included “Candyman”, “Attics of My Life”, and “Sugar Magnolia”.
As journalist and noted Dead scholar Jesse Jarnow notes, the climax jam of the show is the lengthy “Not Fade Away” > “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” > “We Bid You Good Night” to end the set. If Pigpen’s bluesy frontman vocal performance on “Caution” doesn’t send the listener into oblivion, the swell’s of Garcia’s guitar during the jam should certainly do the job.
Revisit the band’s all-timer-worthy performance at the Fillmore East below.
Grateful Dead – Fillmore East – 9/20/70
[Audio: Matthew Vernon]
Setlist: Grateful Dead | Fillmore East | New York, NY | 9/20/70
Set One (Acoustic): Uncle John’s Band, Deep Elem Blues, Friend Of The Devil, Big Railroad Blues, Dark Hollow, Ripple, To Lay Me Down^, Truckin’*, Rosalie McFall, Cumberland Blues^, New Speedway Boogie^, Brokedown Palace
Set Two (Electric): Casey Jones, China Cat Sunflower-> I Know You Rider, Candyman, Sitting On Top Of The World, Good Lovin’-> Drums-> Good Lovin’, Big Boy Pete, Me & My Uncle, Easy Wind, Sugar Magnolia, Attics Of My Life, Mama Tried, Not Fade Away-> Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)-> We Bid You Good Night
^ Jerry Garcia uses electric guitar
* Final Time Played on acoustic