The Grateful Dead are one of those bands where it’s hard to even know where to start, even if I completely ignore the mythology behind the band which I mostly intend to do since these are merely album reviews and aren't meant to provide a history of the band. I never saw the Grateful Dead live, and I’m not nor was I ever a Deadhead, but I do like the band and feel that their importance in basically being the quintessential cult/jam band makes their inclusion almost mandatory on this website. As anyone who knows anything about the band knows, the Grateful Dead was a live band first and foremost, and Live/Dead, released after three studio albums, was the first of about a bazillion live albums (both official and especially unofficial as the band actually encouraged bootlegging) and is generally considered to be among their best ones. It’s easy to see why, as what used to be side one on vinyl in particular is spectacular, though side two is much more hit and miss for me. The album begins with a whopping 23-minute version of the live favorite “Dark Star,” which is simply THE Grateful Dead song for many, and this is a great version. Simply put, this epic rendition is the Grateful Dead in all their acidic, psychedelic glory, with those swirling late night keyboards (Tom Constanten) and ever-escalating guitar runs (Jerry Garcia the guitar hero in vintage form) especially standing out. Sure, there’s some down time as you’d expect in any 23 minute song, but the song’s cosmic, otherworldly ambiance is spellbindingly hypnotic far more often than not, and the comparatively concise “Saint Stephen,” which is powered along by the dual drums of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (along with more swirling keyboards and memorable guitar riffs), is comparatively rocking for these guys and is another excellent effort. The track segues into “The Eleven,” another intense 9-minute jam with powerful drums and more great high-pitched guitar soloing from Garcia. Again, side two is much less spectacular, as the 15-minute Bobby “Blue” Bland showcase (“Turn On Your Love Light”), an energetic r&b-based boogie sung passionately by Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, has its moments for sure but much of it bores me after a while (this one definitely overstays its welcome). I prefer the moody slow burner “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a Reverend Gary Davis cover on which Constanten again shines (Pigpen plays organ here too), even if it also probably didn't need to be 10 minutes long. The album then tediously limps to the finish line with the aptly titled “Feedback” and the harmlessly short (also aptly titled) “And We Bid You Good Night,” so really, this album is too inconsistent to be in the running for any "greatest live album ever" accolade. Truthfully, this album is all about its best four songs for me, but those four songs comprise approximately 50 superbly satisfying minutes, so I tend to listen to (and thoroughly enjoy) only those four songs whenever I play Live/Dead.
Workingman’s Dead (Warner Brothers ‘70) Rating: A-
This album was such a departure from their prior albums that it almost sounds like a different band! Then again, psychedelic rock was no longer the hot ticket, simplifying things and going “back to your roots” was in, as proven by The Band, Bob Dylan, and even The Beatles. As such, this is a song-oriented album that showcases folk, country, bluegrass, pop, and blues influences within what are fairly concise song structures (certainly by their usual standards!). Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter wrote or co-wrote all eight selections, forming an excellent songwriting partnership, and Garcia’s plaintive croon and nimble guitar playing highlight the classic rock radio station staples “Uncle Johns Band” and “Casey Jones” (the latter with its infamous "high on cocaine" lyric), a pair of supremely tuneful folk-pop songs which also feature well-done harmony vocalizing, which was all the rage at the time due to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Elsewhere, “New Speedway Boogie” is a groovy little boogie about the Altamont tragedy that showcases Garcia’s cutting guitar fills, and “Cumberland Blues” ups the tempo while adding more lashing guitars and engaging harmonies. Meanwhile, the bluesy “Easy Wind,” the most jam-based song here, showcases a fine vocal performance by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, backed by more lashing Garcia guitar playing and inventive percussion. Most of this album has a homespun, laid back charm, though things turn darker on “Dire Wolf,” which is still delightful due to its cool pedal steel guitar and memorably catchy "don't murder me" chorus. Perhaps plodding tempos hinder certain tracks like “High Time” and “Black Peter,” but I like the former song anyway (the latter track not so much), and on the whole Workingman's Dead has some of the band’s most accomplished and varied songs. Garcia in particular shows his versatility throughout the album, taking most of the lead vocals (like his friend Dylan I’d characterize him as a technically limited but effective singer) and often shining on pedal steel guitar, acoustic guitar, and banjo in addition to his usual lead electric guitar exploits. All in all, Workingman's Dead is an extremely effective showcase of the band’s rootsy side, if not quite as well done as its similarly themed and even more classic follow-up, American Beauty.
American Beauty (Warner Brothers ‘70) Rating: A
Continuing in a similar vein as Workingman’s Dead (the two albums are generally considered to be companion pieces), this 10-track collection of folk and country-tinged pop rock tunes is the Dead’s best studio album, whose bittersweet, weary lyrics are matched by the laid back pull of the music and the band’s much improved, perfectly imperfect harmonies. There’s some exemplary acoustic pickin’ throughout, and most of these songs resonate with a quiet beauty, placing American Beauty at the forefront of roots rock albums produced during that period (pretty impressive to produce two great albums in a single year, no? Who is the last modern day band that’s managed that I wonder? Been a while for sure, but I digress...) Songs such as “Box Of Rain” (written by the band’s excellent bassist, Phil Lesh, with Hunter), “Friend Of The Devil,” and “Ripple” became instant concert and radio favorites, while “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’,” a pair of livelier tunes which feature Bob Weir (the band’s perpetually overlooked other singer-songwriter-guitarist) on lead vocals and showcase the band’s propulsive double drum attack, also became songs synonymous with the band (the latter tune’s “what a long, strange trip it’s been” being something of a band theme). This album was a continuation of the earthy style began on Workingman’s Dead but which was explored here even more successfully, making this an effortlessly agreeable album that even non-Deadheads can easily appreciate. Even the album cover is classic, and “Box Of Rain” and “Ripple,” both utterly gorgeous, are probably my favorite Dead songs, period (the latter having major sentimental value for me as well as it always reminds me of my beloved deceased bud Kevin). Perhaps the Pigpen showcase “Operator” is a bit on the slight side, and “Attics Of My Life” is a rather dreary attempt at profundity, but the album also features excellent non-radio album tracks like “Candyman” and “Brokedown Palace.” Deadheads waited and waited for the third installment, but their legions of fans would have to be appeased by the band’s constant reworking of these nuggets throughout the decades, since the band never really got around to exploring this style in a similar fashion on their subsequent studio records. As a result, American Beauty stands as the high water mark of the band’s studio albums. It’s still not perfect, either in the songwriting or performance department (it could use a jolt of energy at times), but anyone with even a passing interest in the band should start here. If you don’t like this album, then you probably don’t like the Grateful Dead.
Europe ’72 (Warner Brothers ‘72) Rating: A-
This triple live album (now a double CD) of the Dead’s acclaimed 1972 tour is probably the band’s second best proper original live album after Live/Dead, though it’s probably a little less necessary for the diehards now that there are so many strong archive live releases available. By and large this album is comprised of comparatively concise versions of un-psychedelic songs (thereby making it much different from Live/Dead), several of which were making their first appearance on a Dead album. Indeed, with no songs from Live/Dead and only three from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty ("Cumberland Blues," "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'"), one of the best characteristics of this album is its impressive track listing. Of course, if the performances (some clearly sweetened up in the studio) weren’t up to par that wouldn’t matter much, and fortunately these are mostly prime performances. Disc one in particular is mostly excellent, with non-radio songs beloved by Deadheads such as the bluesy “He’s Gone,” the party flavored Weir boogie “One More Saturday Night” and also the Hunter/Weir collaboration “Jack Straw” (with its harmonized lead vocals and melodic high-pitched guitar leads), and catchy harmonyfests “Ramble On Rose” and “Tennessee Jed,” both of which feature stellar guitar playing as well (especially Jed which is actually on disc two). Impressive covers come in the form of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and an elongated (almost 12 minutes) version of the much-covered “Morning Dew” (my favorite version is still from the Jeff Beck Group), plus Pigpen gets his final moment to shine on a slow version of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” (I actually prefer the more modest Pigpen song “Mr. Charlie,” a catchy little groover; Pigpen would die within a year, sadly). The album’s best section is the much-lauded 10-minute “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” medley, with its laid back yet propulsive groove and more high-pitched guitar leads making them prototypical Dead tracks. The versions of “Cumberland Blues” and a 7-minute “Sugar Magnolia” are also very good, and new member Keith Godchaux impresses on piano throughout (the band’s other new member, wife Donna Jean Godchaux, is comparatively subdued on backing vocals and is all the more effective for that). The album’s weak link is the 26-minute “Truckin’”, “Epilogue,” “Prelude” section on disc two, which has its moments but too often devolves into what critics would call "aimless noodling." Still, though it has its faults and clearly delivers too much of a good thing (I tend to program my 12 favorite songs when I listen to this album, rather than play the whole thing), I greatly enjoy the majority of Europe ‘72, as its best performances are well worth the time of any music fan, Dead acolyte or not. Note: I don't have the time or the energy to review the band's many archive live releases, most of which I'm not familiar enough to properly review anyway. That said, certainly any Deadhead is well aware of the Dick's Picks series of albums; I myself have and highly recommend Dick's Picks Volume 4, a 3-cd set of live material from 2/13/70 and 2/14/70 concerts that's generally considered among the very best of the band's archive live releases. Other notable live releases include Reckoning (if you like their acoustic side), One From The Vault, Two From The Vault, the So Many Roads (1965-1995) 5-CD box set, and Sunshine Daydream: Veneta, Oregon, August 27, 1972, but even with all those albums (all readily available on Spotify as of this writing) that’s just scratching the surface! Note #2: 1972 also saw the release of Bob Weir’s strong first solo album, Ace. This is notable because, to quote Wikipedia: “Weir's backing band was the Dead itself (minus Pigpen), and all songs except "Walk in the Sunshine" became concert staples of the Dead. The album is essentially a Grateful Dead record in everything but name.”
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