Commercial and artistic triumph Workingman’s Dead established Garcia as the defining voice of the Dead. Don’t take that for granted, as Pigpen’s rave-ups and the more ambiguously authored jams make leadership and the Dead a slippery proposition. But Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songs WERE Workingman’s Dead, save for Easy Wind. He continued the proliferation of mournful ballads with High Time and Black Peter, rocked out with Casey Jones and New Speedway Boogie, sang pastoral Uncle John’s Band, Dire Wolf, and Cumberland Blues. This last one duets with Bob Weir, but he’s still working on the originals where he’d sing lead. So yeah, Garcia.
So yeah, what do they do with American Beauty? They lead off with a Phil Lesh sung song, Box of Rain, American Beauty’s calling card. The guitar solo is given away to Dave Nelson, their friend from jug band days and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Friend of the Devil is a Garcia tune, but David Grisman’s featured mandolin is integral to the furious acoustic jamming and bluegrass associations. …Devil’s followed by the debut of what would become Weir’s warhorse, Sugar Magnolia. And then for good measure, gotta have a Pigpen tune, in this case Operator. Though this was his last studio contribution and his health had begun its decline, Pigpen had many tremendous, booty-shaking badass performances ahead of him in 1971 and 1972. So we’re almost to the end of Side One, and Garcia’s pretty much in the background. So yeah.
Yeah? The remaining 29 minutes of this 42-minute gem all belong to Garcia’s burgeoning songwriting craft. Side 1 concludes with perhaps his and Robert Hunter’s best hard-luck wail to date, Candyman. They were performing the lament of Loser as well, but that studio version went to Garcia’s first solo album. Side 2 commences a masterpiece of a suite, the closest the Dead get to the perfect segues of The Beatles that they so admired. Ripple such a crowd-pleaser, an orgasm of mellow flowing seamlessly into the lullaby of Brokedown Palace, which only grows more appreciated with time; the underrated confection Till the Morning Comes lightens the mood, and the three or four obvious chord strums Garcia/Weir refuse to play keep this song lively and fresh. The unexpected finale, Attics of My Life, features a chorus that hovers in the breath of psychedelic suspension. Why not end the record with the For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow encore, Truckin’? Truckin’ is revealed to be more masterful than we previously heard. The guitars play with great restraint…in a sense, it’s the continuity of Lesh’s bass that carries the tune. Each verse becomes more spare until the penultimate one where it’s just Weir singing, Lesh bassing, a muted drum shuffle, very powerful…and what the hell, it’s an anthem.
The remastering is a pretty sweet deal. Overall, you feel like you’re in the room. You realize that informing this album of smoothness, production and consonance are some clickin’ live studio sessions, with all their vulnerabilities.
The drum parts get a lively accent. Phil Lesh never delivered a better vocal performance than he does on Box of Rain,and the remastering gives that moment bold relief. And that jam on Friend of the Devil? I’d not heard its swinging rattle before this. The bass sound on Workingman’s Dead remastered was tricky and occasionally troublesome. Not so on this worthy remastering.
The live show bonus on the CD issue will pin your ears to the wall, or ceiling, depending upon your state. It was the last show before Mickey Hart would leave the band for three and a half years. Bertha and Wharf Rat both make spectacular debuts, the latter played in a womb fashioned from a Dark Star. That memorable opening set is followed by a few real uglies in the second, but Pigpen pulls the boys out of the shaky sky with Big Boss Man. When Sugar Magnolia comes on, they’re off to the races: St. Stephen is sure-footed and swings hard, the power of Not Fade Away is still surprising the band, an outrageously alive gallop, one the best versions I’ve heard.
The following night, in the same hall (The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY), the Dead began the all-Kreutzmann drum era, and was released as Three from the Vault. The two excellent shows make quite a pair.
Rolling Stone’s David Browne adds an insightful essay to the package, bringing a clear eye to the eventful moment of 1970: losing Joplin and Hendrix, Kent State killings in the midst of the invasion of Cambodia, Beatles breakup, Manson murders, et frickin’ cetera! Family deaths, financial debts and embezzlement all besieged the Dead…Browne throws it all at the wall for us to deepen our appreciation of American Beauty, that somehow showed up right on time.
[and yes, if you look at it a certain way, the cover also reads “American Reality”]