Friday, August 19, 2016

Grateful Dead 5: Workingman’s Dead

A couple of funny things happened on the way to the next Dead album. First, Jerry Garcia taught himself how to play the pedal steel guitar. Then, the band decided to write songs in a conventional manner. Most accounts credit Crosby, Stills & Nash for influencing the band to concentrate more on singing, which makes one of the few collaborations of the LA scene and the Frisco scene of the time.
Workingman’s Dead was the first recorded fruits of this new approach, established firmly by “Uncle John’s Band”, a campfire strum with an entirely acoustic backing. “High Time” adds a guitar through a Leslie speaker, but is slow, sad, and pretty. That new pedal steel dominates “Dire Wolf”, something of a modern folk song, perhaps best known by the chorus “don’t murder me.” The Dead that rocks finally surfaces on “New Speedway Boogie”, which continues the foreboding theme, this time obliquely referring to the Altamont free concert, which had already gotten so tense by the time the band showed up that they turned around and left without playing. (As seen in Gimme Shelter, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve fills in Garcia and Phil Lesh about the situation. “Bummer,” comments Jerry. “Marty [Balin] got beat up,” says Shrieve. “Doesn’t seem right, man,” replies Phil.)
Things pick up musically with another modern folk lament. “Cumberland Blues” begins like a Dead jam, but turns to bluegrass by the end with a prominent banjo. “Black Peter” counterparts “High Time”, being a slow sad lope, with a few nice touches, like the occasional organ and the layered vocals. “Easy Wind” gives Pigpen something to do vocally, and he manages to keep up even though it sounds like the band is playing in three different tempos simultaneously. “Casey Jones” provides a grand finale, another twist on an old folk tale, and one everybody likes to sing because it rhymes “train” with “cocaine”.
As would be proven in time, Workingman’s Dead was key to a successful year for the band artistically, and part of a wave of good music coming out of California at the time. By moving away from experimenting for the sake of it, and borne out by the sepia-toned, almost Wild West artwork, they could be taken seriously as musicians. (The expanded CD is packed to capacity: a mix of “New Speedway Boogie” with backing vocals; a pile of live recordings of the time, like “Dire Wolf” sung by Bob Weir and an off-pitch “Mason’s Children”, a song recorded for the album but left off; and the obligatory radio ad.)

The Grateful Dead Workingman’s Dead (1970)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks

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