By Jeff Burger
The Grateful Dead practically reinvented themselves with their terrific fourth album, June 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, which found them eschewing long psychedelic jams in favor of tightly constructed country-influenced rock that emphasized vocal harmonies and acoustic instrumentation. They remained largely on that path—albeit while injecting a bit more mysticism into a few of their lyrics—for their next LP, American Beauty, which showed up a mere five months later, in November 1970. The similarities aren’t surprising, given that the albums were recorded in the same year; in fact, at least a couple of the tracks on American Beauty were actually considered for inclusion on its predecessor.
Though both releases rank with the best studio recordings of the Dead’s entire career, American Beauty arguably represents the cream of the crop. Though it never rose higher than 30 on the charts at the time of its release and produced only one minor single (“Truckin’,” a vehicle that stalled at No. 64), it has sold steadily over subsequent decades. And at least half of its 10 songs are today recognized as Dead classics, including “Box of Rain” (written by Phil Lesh for his dying father), “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” the aforementioned “Truckin’,” and the exquisite, hymn-like “Ripple.”
Like all of its predecessors in the Dead’s studio catalog, American Beauty has now been reissued in a 50th anniversary edition. The new package couples an excellent remaster of the original 42-minute record with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour February 1971 concert from the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. The live material, though long available online, has not previously seen an official release.
The well-recorded concert, which mostly showcases the other side of the band’s personality, includes only three numbers from American Beauty (“Truckin’,” “Candyman,” and “Sugar Magnolia”), all of which are reworked and considerably lengthened. Also on the program are two expansive medleys—“Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”/“Not Fade Away” and “Dark Star”/“Wharf Rat”—plus such concert staples as “St. Stephen” and covers of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Yes, these recordings join a discography that already includes several million other Dead concert albums (or so it sometimes seems) and, yes, those albums include umpteen other live versions of these same songs. But as any Deadhead will tell you, every performance is just a bit different, and you can never have too many.
Speaking of Deadheads, serious fans will also want to investigate American Beauty: The Angel’s Share, a new digital-only set that suggests just how much work went into creating the often effortless-sounding performances on the original album. It collects previously unavailable—indeed, only recently discovered—material. Featuring 56 demos and outtakes and incorporating lots of studio chatter, it will make you feel as if you’re listening in as the Dead slowly but surely transform rough works in progress into polished gems.
The two-and-a-half-hour package delivers multiple full and partial takes of every track from American Beautyexcept “Box of Rain.” (That number appears only once, in an excellent if slightly unfinished acoustic reading.) Highlights abound, including an instrumental version of “Ripple” (then called “Hand Me Down”) and a Jerry Garcia solo rendition of “Attics of My Life.”
Duke Robillard and Friends, Blues Bash!. Consummate guitarist Duke Robillard—who first garnered attention in the late 1960s as the founder and front man of Roomful of Blues—parties up a storm on the aptly named Blues Bash!.
The CD incorporates several new originals alongside such material as Dave Bartholomew’s “Ain’t Gonna Do It,” which Fats Domino has recorded; Roy Milton’s “What Can I Do”; and “Do You Mean It,” a 1957 Ike Turner single that also serves as the first single from this CD. A long list of accompanists provide two hot horn sections and boogie-woogie piano, plus harp, bass, and soulful vocals. “Just Chillin’,” a jazzy 10-minute instrumental, seems best suited for reflective listening but most of the rest of this set, which is redolent of 50s R&B, will have you tapping your feet if not up and dancing.
Jesse Colin Young, Highway Troubadour. Veteran folkie Jesse Colin Young appears to be in a nostalgic mood on the new Highway Troubadour, a solo acoustic set that devotes five of its 11 tracks to reinventions of some of the strongest material from his old band, the Youngbloods.
The album features “Four in the Morning,” from that group’s eponymous 1967 debut; “Sugar Babe” and “Euphoria” from the same year’s Earth Music; and “Darkness, Darkness” and “Quicksand” from 1969’s Elephant Mountain. Other reimagined material on the program includes “Song for Juli,” which Young wrote and first recorded back in the early 1970s for his then four-year-old daughter; and “Ridgetop,” a number from the same period that was inspired by the singer’s move from New York City to the San Francisco area. There are also several relatively recent tracks that he coauthored with his wife, Connie, among them “Cast a Stone,” which addresses the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
The recent material is excellent, but longtime fans will likely be most interested in the re-recordings, which are generally darker and more blues-inflected than the originals. Some may miss the fuller instrumentation on the Youngbloods’ LPs, but all of the stripped-down new renditions are just as good or better, thanks to inventive arrangements and Young’s arresting vocal work.
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.