REVIEW: The Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead” Is Still Quintessential Listening 50 Years Later

Reviews

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Looking at the sepia tone album cover of the Workingman’s Dead 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, I give away my age when I say I remember my older brother having the original on 8-Track tape back when it came out in 1970. I remember my seven-year-old brain being somewhat mortified of it because the men pictured on the cover looked like zombies to me ( which I attribute to the old-timey feel of the photo and the post – Night of the Living Dead mania of the day).

My fear didn’t last long, however. It subsided one day when my brother was not at home and I put the tape in his trusty Pioneer player and listened to the eight songs on the album.

I remember thinking during that clandestine listening session that the band sounded a lot like some of the other bands that my older sibling listened to like CCR or CSNY. What set them apart, however, was that unlike a lot of the other bands of the day, they sounded like they were actually having fun playing their instruments and singing. That impression has never left me.

Fifty years later as I listen to the same songs and pick up on some of the weighty themes of the record – the working life, the nature of existence, maintaining hope amidst despair, and staring down death, I still hear an exuberant undercurrent of love and compassion coming from the Grateful Dead’s music that continually sets them apart for me in the world of rock and roll bands. 

I still hear their love for music for music’s sake, but now I also additionally hear an affection for their musical forefathers and influences, for life itself, and for their fans. It is a love that literally pours out of the speakers when their songs are playing and is a love that helps explain the existence of an unprecedented and unmatched fanatical fanbase decades later.

The eight songs on Workingman’s Dead features the band displaying their amazing ability to synthesize elements from Bluegrass, Folk, Country, Blues, Jazz, Dylan’s early electric songs, and sixties rock and roll to masterfully forge a distinctly original sound of their own.

That all of these songs still sound fresh and lively now after a half-century has passed is a testament to the prodigious individual and collective talents of the band.

As a bonus, this reissue also includes a two-CD recording of a previously unreleased complete concert from the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York on February 21, 1971. It is a wonderful addition to the remastered Workingman’s in that it not only further highlights the aforementioned mastery of the American music form by the band but gives a great example of what one of their legendary live shows sounded like back then. 

Taken together, this entire reissue set is quintessential listening for anyone interested in how Americana music grew into having its own genre because it is a paradigm, as is all of the Grateful Dead’s music, of how to make roots music your own when creating your sonic footprint.

Workingman’s Dead 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition by the Grateful Dead on Rhino Records is now available on the band’s website and on all of the major streaming services.

 

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