Having sized up Bill Graham’s Fillmore audience with two nights at Fillmore East the month prior, the Miles Davis sextet arrived at Fillmore West well-prepared for a four-night run opening for the Grateful Dead. They were also riding high on the release Bitches Brew, unleashed just days prior on March 30th, and by all accounts were fully intent on upstaging, outplaying, and straight-up out-psychedelicizing the Dead with nightly mind-melting sets.
Bassist Phil Lesh recalls his reaction to the April Fillmore West shows in his memoir, Searching for Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead
As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking, “What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.
Like most of Miles’ Fillmore gigs, all four nights were recorded, with the evening of April 11th memorialized on the Columbia double LP, Black Beauty.
This Fillmore West run came near the end of some intense studio experimentation for Miles and his ever-changing Studio B ensemble. From the 12- to 14-person November ’69 sessions that produced the more languid material collected on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, to the spare 5-man sessions that make up The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, Miles seemed hell-bent to whittle down his studio crew to the bare essentials while maintaining maximum impact. Corea and Holland also continued their drift beyond Miles’ orbit, having just recorded the excellent The Song of Singing LP with Barry Altschul in a session the day before these gigs – a precursor to the Circle lineup minus Anthony Braxton on reeds.
These are also the sextet’s first shows with Wayne Shorter’s short-lived replacement, Steve Grossman, who contributed to a few of Miles’ studio sessions earlier in the year and would join Holland and DeJohnette in September for Corea’s Japan-only LP, The Sun. Though he takes a couple of nights to settle in, the 19-year-old is a cog in the wheel by the final set, blowing a tapestry so thick it practically draped the stage.
4.9 – Night One
Typical of the first show of a multi-night stand, the band plays the first half of the set remarkably tight and relatively restrained – perhaps they didn’t want to terrify Grossman right out of the gate. Corea’s effects arsenal is underutilized compared to the Fillmore East run, with only the wah pedal making a brief appearance during “Directions”. The fidelity’s also a bit deceptive on this tape, robbing some of the quieter sections of the set of their subtlety and dynamics, and making Holland sound as though he’s plucking rubber bands all night. “Sanctuary” is given an interesting treatment, shortened extensively to little more than an introductory theme to the Bitches Brew medley of “Spanish Key” and the title track. A thrilling show, albeit a weird one. Let’s call it a warm up.
Get the tape / lossless
1. Directions (6:41)
2. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (9:21)
3. This (5:47)
4. It’s About That Time (11:41)
5. I Fall In Love Too Easily (2:14)
6. Sanctuary (3:33)
7. Spanish Key (13:22)
8. Bitches Brew (13:35)
9. The Theme (:13)
BONUS: Jesse Jarnow offers up a great play-by-play of Grateful Dead’s headlining set, with a link to the stream.
4.10 – Night Two
The second night’s set was originally issued as a Japan-only double LP in 1973, and was somewhat of a rarity in that it featured the sextet’s complete, unedited performance. Appropriately, the record was released without a proper tracklisting, with each side titled simply “Black Beauty” I-IV – emphasising Miles’ concept of presenting a single unbroken suite.
At just shy of 80 minutes, this is the longest documented performance of the electric era thus far. And what a knockout of a set it is. Corea is pretty forward in the mix on a particularly impressive night, adding some extreme tape manipulation to the Rhodes throughout – check out his noise solo at the end of “Directions” for an early-set head trip. Again, “Bitches Brew” and “Spanish Key” are standouts, with “Masqualero” sandwiched between for what might be the most impressive 35 minutes you’ll hear from this sextet.
Even “The Theme” is a killer at the close of the show, with a smooth segue and a tight statement – not as common a feat as you might think! Sorry heads, no Grateful Dead tape exists of night 2.
Stream Black Beauty Spotify / Apple Music
1. Directions (10:46)
2. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (12:22)
3. Willie Nelson (6:23)
4. I Fall in Love Too Easily (1:35)
5. Sanctuary (4:01)
6. It’s About That Time (9:59)
7. Bitches Brew (12:53)
8. Masqualero (9:07)
9. Spanish Key/The Theme (12:14)
4.11 – Night 3
Night 3 has Corea again fairly prominent in the mix, and no complaints here – he’s getting a phenomenal variety of tones out of the Rhodes and is in fine form on this run of shows. Listen to band slip into the title track from his own Sundance LP beginning around 10 minutes into “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” before going all-in on the tune at 12:15 through the end. Miles signals them into a killer “Paraphernalia” with Holland switching over to standup bass, then back to electric for “Footprints” with Miles quoting “My Favorite Things” around 3:30 as the band eases in.
Grossman does his best Coltrane he can muster during “It’s About That Time” as DeJohnette simmers underneath, only to be outdone by Corea playfully mimicking the soprano solo on the Rhodes before leading the band into “Willie Nelson” to close the set. “Voodoo”, “Paraphernalia” and “Footprints” from this show were included as bonus tracks on the 2014 Bootleg Series Volume 3 box, which collected the band’s complete June run at Fillmore East.
Get the tape
1. Directions (9:30)
2. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (13:34)
3. Paraphernalia (10:12)
4. Footprints (12:02)
5. I Fall in Love Too Easily (2:37)
6. Sanctuary (3:41)
7. It’s About That Time (10:23)
8. Willie Nelson/The Theme (4:24)
BONUS: Jarnow again with the scene report and a link to the Grateful Dead set.
4.12 – Night 4
Night 3 is a wild affair and a truly monumental set, beginning with a rare “It’s About That Time” opener. DeJohnette turns the beat inside out, Holland refreshes the bassline and if not for Miles’ sketch of the melody to start it would be unrecognizable. Weirder still, “Directions” follows, with Corea ending with a couple minutes of musique concrète via his Maestro Echoplex. Though the set is again surprisingly light on Bitches Brew material, the title track is an adventure here, ebbing and flowing as if it’s been given a new lease on life. Note the crowd’s reaction to the stop-on-a-dime pivot into “Spanish Key” – they’re hanging on every note and loving it.
With a mid-set heavy on older tunes – some in their final recorded performance – balanced with a downright exhilarating take on the new material, this is the sound of the sextet shedding its skin and moving forward. Miles’ bands would perform almost exclusively new material from this night on. A turning point if there ever was one, and a set not to be missed.
Get the tape
1. It’s About That Time (10:39)
2. Directions (11;59)
3. I Fall in Love Too Easily (1:47)
4. Sanctuary (3:47)
5. Footprints (10:24)
6. Agitation (1:46)
7. No Blues (7:41)
8. Bitches Brew (14:20)
9. Spanish Key (11:12)
10. The Theme (0:47)