By Jeff Burger
The Grateful Dead’s first three albums—their eponymous 1967 debut, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, and 1969’s Aoxomoxoa—feature psychedelia-influenced, experimental, sometimes sprawling numbers that reflect the milieu of the group’s Haight-Ashbury home base in San Francisco. On their June 1970 fourth studio album, however, they follow such artists as Bob Dylan (1968’s John Wesley Harding and 1969’s Nashville Skyline) and the Byrds (1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo) in largely eschewing their former sound in favor of stripped-down, roots- and country-based music. The result, which earned widespread and well-deserved critical acclaim, was the group’s biggest commercial success to date.
Like, say, the Band’s self-titled second album, Workingman’s Dead consists of songs (most by Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter) that while new often sound as if they have been around forever. (Unless, that is, you know the inspiration for lyrics such as those on “New Speedway Boogie,” which addresses the violence at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont concert.) You can hear the influence of the Bakersfield sound in some of these tracks, as well as of bluegrass and Appalachian hillbilly music.
Everything about the album—even its sepia-toned cover photo—represents something close to a U-turn from what the previous releases deliver. While the group’s earlier LPs emphasize guitar and percussion, this one spotlights vocal harmonies and singalong choruses. It also reflects a new sense of discipline and an appreciation of the benefits of conciseness. While the jam-heavy Anthem of the Sun, for example, contains only one number that clocks in at less than about eight minutes and features two tracks that flow together for a total time of more than 21 minutes, Workingman’s Dead offers just a few tunes that exceed five minutes, and then only slightly.
In fact, the whole eight-song record lasts only a little over half an hour, but like 50th anniversary editions of the group’s first three albums, a new three-CD half-century commemoration release of Workingman’s Dead delivers much more than its antecedent did: in addition to a remastered copy of the original record, it includes a 24-song, approximately two-and-a-half-hour 1971 concert that embraces material from throughout the band’s career up to that point. Here, the Dead stretch out and sound more like the group that produced the first three albums.
Besides versions of Workingman’s Dead’s “Casey Jones,” “Easy Wind,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and “Cumberland Blues,” the live set features the traditional “Cold Rain and Snow” and Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It on Down the Line,” both of which appear on the Dead’s debut LP; “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’,” and “Ripple,” from American Beauty, the follow-up to Workingman’s Dead; and covers of songs that had by 1971 become Dead concert staples, such as Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and a 17-minute rendition of the Rascals’ hit “Good Lovin’.”
God knows no shortage exists of available Grateful Dead live material from this or any other period; there are now dozens and dozens—if not hundreds—of authorized and unauthorized concert discs (which makes it somewhat remarkable that the show preserved here has apparently not previously seen the light of day). That said, this recording comes from a period when the Dead were doing some of their best concerts, and it features one strong performance after another, virtually all of them highlighted by Garcia’s guitar wizardry.
If you don’t already own the original album—or have it only in the form of a scratchy old LP—the remastered CD included here should alone be enough reason to pick this up. The live tracks, though, are icing on the cake—and a tasty icing indeed.
Bonnie Whitmore, Last Will & Testament. No need to wait for this one to grow on you: its well-hooked music and lush production will likely grab you pretty fast, but not any faster than the head-turning vibrato of Bonnie Whitmore. The singer, who spent years backing up artists like Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, clearly belongs stage center.
Whitmore, whose sister Eleanor is half of the terrific alt-country group the Mastersons, delivers the goods on this career-making fourth album, where she reminds me a lot of the also-excellent Whitney Rose. Like Rose, she clearly draws from country music but has one foot—or sometimes both—in pop and rock. That’s certainly the case with “Time to Shoot,” the best track, which weds a gorgeous vocal to an infectious strings backup that builds to a crescendo. (Sister Eleanor guests on this and one other track, playing violin and arranging the strings.)
While music this catchy and commercial sounding often focuses on romance, Whitmore doesn’t hesitate to venture into darker territory. There are a couple of songs about relationships (the effusive “Love Worth Remembering” and the up tempo “Fine”), but the program also makes room for numbers like “Asked for It,” which addresses blame-the-victim rape culture as well as the title cut and “None of My Business,” which respectively offer Whitmore’s responses to a suicide and the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones featuring Little Charlie, Too Far from the Bar. Open up a cold one and get ready for a dose of boogie-woogie-spiced blues rock from singer/harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia and his band. In addition to guitarist Charlie Baty, who died unexpectedly soon after the album was completed, the talented group includes pianist Anthony Geraci on piano, Michael Mudcat Ward on acoustic bass, and Neil Gouvin on drums.
Produced by Duke Robillard (who adds memorable guitar on four numbers), the set incorporates five Norcia originals and several songs by members of his band. Also on the program are such well-chosen covers as Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bluebird Blues,” Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out,” Otis Spann’s “What Will Become of Me,” and “Don’t Give No More Than You Can Take” from the 1950s’ influential “5” Royales.
This is party music, from first “bluetone” to last.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.