If it's true the Grateful Dead
epitomize the counter culture of the Sixties, it's also true the iconic group embraced the following decade on its very own terms, at least at the outset of the period. Workingman's Dead
(Warner Bros., 1970) represents an authoritative and confident statement of artistic purpose, while its companion piece, American Beauty
(Warner Bros., 1970), is an even more staunch and exquisite declaration of style, one based on folk and country roots almost diametrically opposed to the often-sprawling psychedelia upon which the band based its early performances and albums.
In fact, that stellar latter album may be all the more laudable insofar as its execution offered yet another bastion of tranquility for the group. This second studio work of 1970 coalesced from continuing turmoil in the band's world as personal tragedy commingled with more mundane but only slightly less unsettling business concerns. As a result, the work ultimately turned into a nurturing oasis of imagination for all involved: begun just a few months after the release of the previous LP, this fifth Grateful Dead studio album was recorded by much the same efficient means as its predecessor, albeit without the usual technical crew.
Yet that particular happenstance proved fortuitous. Wally Heider Studios staff engineer Stephen Barncard, a specialist in acoustic sounds and vocal harmonies (who also engineered David Crosby
's If I Could Only Remember My Name
(Atlantic, 1971), stepped into the fold as co- producer (with the band itself) of what was a plentiful batch of fresh original songs. Bob Weir
's "Sugar Magnolia" is one of the few numbers he co- authored with group lyricist Robert Hunter, while "Operator" was Ron McKernan
's sole singing-songwriting effort on a Grateful Dead studio album. And then there's that piece of pure poetry in word and sound, "Box of Rain," bassist Phil Lesh
's paean to his ailing father.
Not surprisingly though, the most stellar and enduring of this lot of compositions came from the collaborative team of Jerry Garcia
and the aforementioned wordsmith-in-residence. "Brokedown Palace" and "Ripple" proved to be two of the most enduring in the iconic band's canon, but neither really compare to the exquisite "Attics of My Life," where dulcet harmonies correspond to the evocative imagery of the lyrics. Then, of course, there's "Truckin,'" perhaps the best known of all Dead tunes: moving in a modified blues shuffle that subtly hearkens to the band's earliest days, the sextet renders the changes with the sleek, poised economy it was refining at this point in its career.
The emphasis on structured ensemble playing, in combination with more practiced multi-register blend of voices (compelling this specific credit to The New Riders of The Purple Sage
(!?), hints at the elevated level of confidence this new material instilled in the band, both on its own terms and as the second giant step in the new direction they had initiated a few months prior. The incorporation of other musicians during this recording, including the titular leader's long-time friend guitarist/vocalist David Nelson
and his current bandmates in the NRPS, bassist/vocalist Dave Torbert
and guitarist/vocalist John "Marmaduke" Dawson, allows the delicate layering of voices and (acoustic as well as electric) instruments to flow effortlessly from various combinations of vocalists and instrumentalists on any given track. David Glasser's remastering only enhances the marvel of this refined playing and singing in real time and offers a separation and tactile presence of sound superior to the 2001 edition.
As with Workingman's Dead 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
, this milestone set also consists of three CDs, two of which comprise the last Dead show with Mickey Hart for upwards of three and a half years. But that's not the only distinction of 2/18/71 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY: the band debuted five songs that would become durable staples in the repertoire for the duration of its career. In that context, the two sets are an object lesson in testing limits, while simultaneously experimenting with various combinations of songs.
For instance, a comparatively brief "Greatest Story Ever Told" quite quickly proceeds into Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." During the sandwiching of "Wharf Rat" between "Dark Star" (!?), there is some teasing of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad," which ultimately appears near the sharp denouement of "Not Fade Away," which itself proceeds from, of all of titles, "St. Stephen." Immediately following that segue as the closer is "Uncle John's Band" where vocals snap right into harmony when they were definitely ragged to a fault just a couple hours prior on the opener of "Bertha."
The very appearance of some vintage tunes is in keeping with audio quality that recalls the mammoth, skeletal sound of Live/Dead
(Warner Bros., 1969). Jeffrey Norman's mix renders the bass so (overly?) prominent it becomes a lead instrument, on occasion too deeply sublimating drummers Hart and Bill Kreutzmann
. The latter is noticeably less assertive in this tandem than when playing on his own, but whether or not the he's deliberately deferring to his percussion partner in the rhythm section keyboardist Ned Lagin
's participation offsets that arguable shortfall: he displays uncanny instincts, for instance, when he unfurls organ lines to parallel those from Garcia's guitar during "Sugar Magnolia."
The singular cover art from which American Beauty
takes its name was a Kelley-Mouse Studio design of the rose that, in embossed form with a metallic finish, becomes even more striking on the slipcase of this 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
. But the comparably florid art inside the digipak, even in black and white, also correlates in its own way to David Browne's erudite essay and producer/archivist David Lemieux affectionate prose end note. Such are the crowning touches on a package design that mirrors the sumptuous nature of the music it contains.
CD 1: Box of Rain; Friend of the Devil; Sugar Magnolia; Operator; Candyman; Ripple; Brokedown Palace; Till
the Morning Comes; Attics of My Life; Truckin’. CD 2: Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
Truckin'; Hurts Me Too; Loser; Greatest Story Ever Told; Johnny B. Goode; Mama Tried; Hard To Handle; Dark
Star; Wharf Rat; Dark Star; Me And My Uncle. CD 3: Casey Jones; Playing in the Band; Me And Bobby
McGee; Candyman; Big Boss Man; Sugar Magnolia; St. Stephen; Not Fade Away; Goin’ Down The Road
Feeling Bad; Not Fade Away; Uncle John's Band.
Jerry Garcia: pedal steel guitar, piano, vocals; Bob Weir: vocals; Pigpen (Ron McKernan): harmonica; Phil Lesh:
guitar, piano, vocals.