Grateful Dead - Workingman’s Dead And Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share Music Album Reviews

 Newly reissued with bonus material for its 50th anniversary, the Dead’s fourth album returned them to their folk-blues roots and transformed the trajectory of their career in the process. 

Freshly busted in New Orleans and teetering upon the edge of financial ruin, the Grateful Dead began 1970 in dire need of a new beginning. Remarkably for a band who had a habit of making their own bad luck, the Dead didn’t miss this opportunity. Operating with a focus they rarely possessed, the band returned to their folk-blues roots and knocked out their fourth album, Workingman’s Dead, in a matter of days, transforming the trajectory of their career in the process.
Often grouped together with its successor American Beauty—reasonably so, considering how Beauty is carved from the same rustic material and appeared just a matter of months later—Workingman’s Dead fit into the anti-psychedelia wave that swept through American rock’n’roll at the dawn of the 1970s. The zeitgeist shifted away from trippy excesses after the release of the Band’s Music From Big Pink in 1968 but the Grateful Dead found greater inspiration in the eponymous 1969 debut from Crosby, Stills & Nash, gravitating toward their harmony-laden homey folk-rock. Stephen Stills and David Crosby traveled similar circles to the Dead, eventually wandering out to Mickey Hart’s ranch in Marin County, a place that doubled as the group’s unofficial headquarters. Stills and Crosby encouraged Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh to sing harmonies, a skill that would come in handy when it came to recording the new batch of songs Garcia was writing with his lyricist Robert Hunter.
What came easily to CSN was work for the Dead. Garcia’s partner Mountain Girl—aka Carolyn Adams, a former Merry Prankster who wound up marrying the guitarist in 1981—laughed about the process to band biographer David Browne, claiming in his 2015 book So Many Roads: The Life And Times Of The Grateful Dead, “They were expected to sing all those parts, and it didn’t go well. It sounded like cats howling.” It’s possible to hear that howl echoing through Workingman’s Dead. The trio’s voices don’t quite mesh, sometimes hitting a dissonant chord, sometimes scrambling for the same note; their effort isn’t merely heard, it’s felt. All that fumbling winds up as an asset on Workingman’s Dead, adding a bit of messiness to the tight performances.

Much of that precision can be chalked up to how the Grateful Dead mapped out all of Workingman’s Dead prior to recording the album with their live-sound team of Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor, a pair who shared a co-production credit with the band. Nothing was left to chance. Matthews, Cantor, and Garcia drew up a provisional sequencing during these sessions, circulating this rough draft on demo cassettes among the band. Rehearsals came next, then the rapid sessions, outtakes of which can be heard on The Angel’s Share, a digital-only collection released alongside the 50th Anniversary edition of Workingman’s Dead. The chief insight provided by The Angel’s Share is how Garcia kept the Dead on track, calling for changes in tempo and directing the arrangements so neither the song nor vibe is obscured. Compared to its willfully spacy predecessor Aoxomoxoa—an album the band recorded twice, as the band exhausted the possibilities of a new 16-track tape recorder while exhausting the patience and wallet of Warner Bros—the simplicity of Workingman’s Dead is bracing, even refreshing, but it’s the earthy, weathered grooves that give the album its distinct character and power.

A crucial part of the Dead’s simplification was relying almost entirely on songs written by Garcia and Hunter in tandem. Jerry wound up singing nearly all the songs, too, sharing the lead with Weir on the bluegrass breakdown “Cumberland Blues” and turning over “Easy Wind,” a blues written by Hunter on his own, to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the band’s husky original frontman. If it weren’t for “Easy Wind,” Pigpen wouldn’t have registered on Workingman’s Dead at all, his absence a reflection of both his increasing alcoholism (he’d die of the disease three years later) and how the songs largely traded blues and experimentation for folk and country.

Drummer Bill Kreutzmann would later claim in his memoir Deal: My Three Decades Of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With The Grateful Dead that Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty represented their “Bakersfield era,” a nod to the country music coming out of California in the 1960s. Certainly, the band made no attempt to conceal their debt to Merle Haggard—the album’s title is a nod to Hag’s 1969 number one country single “Workin’ Man Blues”—but Bakersfield country explicitly tangled with modern concerns, addressing contemporary issues in its lyrics and embracing electrified instruments. With its pronounced twang, only “Cumberland Blues” echoed the style of Bakersfield. The rest of the album is devoted to high lonesome ballads, Sunday afternoon singalongs, and fleet fingerpicking straight out of Appalachia. Inspired equally by old folk tales and black & white movies, Hunter spun legends of mines, dire wolves, and train conductors. His lyrical obsessions may not be all that dissimilar from Robbie Robertson, who populated Band records with Confederate soldiers and farmhands, but Hunter deliberately confounded and conflated his time frame, so it was hard to tell where the old, weird America ended and the paisley underground began.

”Casey Jones” makes hay of this confusion, with Garcia singing, “Driving that train/High on cocaine,” with an audible grin, recognizing that while Hunter may have based his verse on an old blues song documenting a turn-of-the-century train disaster, his verse could be heard as a rallying call for the underground. “Uncle John’s Band,” the band’s first charting hit, walked a similar line, sounding like a campfire perennial while being finely attuned to the hippie hangover of the early 1970s, the period when all the dreams of love and peace started to get a tad tarnished. Appropriately, the scaled-down Workingman’s Dead can be seen as reflecting the moment when hippies retreated from the universal aspirations to personal concerns, a perfect soundtrack to hunkering down on a commune or maybe learning how to grow up while ensconced in a suburb.

The complete performance that pushes the 50th Anniversary Edition of Workingman’s Dead into Super Deluxe status captures this uneasy change, only from a different angle. Plucked from the Dead’s multi-night stint at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York in February 1971—a run that happened right in the middle of the recording of Workingman’s Dead—finds the group navigating the absence of Mickey Hart. Weir mentions the missing Hart from the stage, claiming the drummer wasn’t feeling well, which wasn’t a lie but his illness stemmed from his unease at discovering how his father Lenny fleeced the Dead for many thousands of dollars while serving as the group’s manager.

Without Hart, the group sounds lean and fleet, nearly as simple as they were in the studio for Workingman’s Dead but allowing themselves plenty of space to jam and boogie. The set features several songs that would form the backbone of American Beauty, including the Weir-led “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’”, a pair of tunes essential to the mythology of the band and their popularity through the 1970s. Hearing them as part of this (very) extended coda to the original album helps hammer home how different Workingman’s Dead is from the rest of the Dead’s catalog. American Beauty is superficially similar, mining the same folk-country blend, finding space for vocalists that weren’t Garcia and sanding off the rough edges apparent throughout Workingman’s Dead. It’s a smoother listen, but like any homespun art, the imperfections are what makes Workingman’s Dead compelling. Within those ragged harmonies, hard strums, and fables, it’s possible to hear the Grateful Dead transform from psychedelic upstarts to an American institution.
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Grateful Dead - Workingman’s Dead And Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share Music Album Reviews Grateful Dead - Workingman’s Dead And Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Saturday, July 18, 2020 Rating:

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