REVIEW: The Grateful Dead’s reissues of “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” are Impeccable

Reviews

In late summer and early fall, Rhino Records along with the Grateful Dead have re-issued Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two quintessential recordings as 50th Anniversary editions, both lovingly re-mastered and expanded with corresponding live performances. It’s difficult to discuss one without the other, so rather than split them, I waited until both of my copies arrived and I was able to take appropriate time to dissect them. Ask even the most casual Dead fan to name one of the band’s songs, and they’re likely to name one of the songs featured on these two albums. Workingman’s Dead features: “Uncle John’s Band,” “High Time,” “Dire Wolf,” “”New Speedway Boogie,” Cumberland Blues,” “Black Peter,” “Easy Wind” and “Casey Jones.”  While American Beauty delivered: “Box of Rain,” Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Operator,” “Candyman,” “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Till the Morning Comes,” “Attics of My Life” and “Truckin’.” I mean, come on. That’s a pretty strong pair of albums don’t you think?

Indeed, these are some of the Dead’s most cherished and beloved songs. Songs that would remain in the band’s live repertoire throughout their touring career until Jerry Garcia’s death in August of 1995 brought a halt to the Grateful Dead. Even still, these songs continue to see regular appearances in setlists through different post-Garcia incarnations to this day. 1970 was a year of musical evolution for the Dead, a year that saw the band incorporate the folkier sounds that were taking California by storm as well as influences of the Bakersfield sound. Bands such as Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were all the new rage, and the Dead certainly weren’t impervious to the influences. Through their exposure of their peers, the band realized the importance of improving and focusing on harmonies.  Mixing their solid base of psychedelia and Garcia’s foundation of bluegrass, the band added various elements of folk, blues, rock and country creating the two masterpieces we’re revisiting today.

In addition to chasing this new sound, the most significant factor in the success of these albums was the songwriting of one Robert Hunter. These weren’t your everyday excursions in rhyme and meter. Hunter’s lyrics were deeply literary, painting an expansive, interpretive portrait of the time that absolutely resonates still today. One of the most fascinating facts in Dead history for me, is the fact that Hunter wrote “Ripple,” “To Lay Me Down” and “Brokedown Palace” all within the same afternoon. That’s just ridiculous.

Everything about these re-issues is impeccable. Both were produced by Grateful Dead Vault Archivist, David Lemieux, with mastering on both recordings was done by David Glasser, and including contributions to the process from Plangent Processes, Jamie Howarth, and John Chester. The packaging and attention to detail is meticulous. The covers and booklets feature notes, quotes and extensive photos. Even better, each album includes a complete, full archival recording from a live show of the same era performed at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. The Workingman’s release includes the stellar performance from 2/21/71, while the American Beauty features what is one of my top 3 Grateful Dead shows of all time, 2/18/71, with the debuts of Bertha, Greatest Story Ever Told, Loser, Playing in the Band and Wharf Rat.  Both of the live shows were mixed by Jeffrey Norman at TRI Studios, and highlight songs from the albums as well as plenty of hot jams.

I’d wager that among Deadheads, right after the appropriately named live release, Live Dead, the two studio albums most listened too, would be Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Beloved for their live performances, The Grateful Dead were never fairly appreciated for their studio work. Truth is, with these two albums, the Dead released two of the most iconic and quintessential Americana albums decades before the term became all encompassing for ”roots music”. Workingman’s Dead was originally released in June of 1970, and quickly followed in November of that year by American Beauty. The back-to-back releases, and the musical similarities of the two albums thus intertwined them creating a powerful one-two punch of earthy musical folklore that still resounds today. These are must have recordings for fans of multiple genres of music. Like many of the iconic albums of yesteryear, these have been issued and re-issued over and over. Regardless, these are the versions to have. Miracle those older ones to a deserving acolyte. Available now via: https://www.dead.net and/or: https://www.rhino.com

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