Short version: You want this recently-released three-disc set if you like this album.
Version version: They did a great job. The songs sparkle and crackle, they weep, they moan, they get naked, they twist, and shout.
On the CD, I don’t like the way the bass is managed for Uncle John’s Band. Other versions that are less boomy better serve the song (and this is something a remastering could have addressed), but bless you and your bombs, Phil Lesh! On the vinyl, it works somewhat better.
Every other cut is just so clear and unaffected, CD and vinyl, you’re really getting close to the song and the diligent work that went into capturing that “zaftig, wild, Venus vibration”* in a studio. The naked vocals of High Time, the pedal steel climax on Dire Wolf, the jostling swing of guitar and banjo on Cumberland Blues, the jams sneaked into Easy Wind and New Speedway Boogie. Have no fear and shed no tear, dear, you hear Weir, so very clear, without peer—and he gives a master class on how the rhythm guitar part can create and complement the defining emotional homunculus of the song. And I think I even heard someone fart during High Time . . .
I still contend that the studio versions of all Workingman’s Side 1 are definitive [Uncle John’s Band, High Time, Dire Wolf, New Speedway Boogie]. I’ve never heard live versions of any of these songs that have brought me comparable satisfaction. Not that Side 2 [Cumberland Blues, Black Peter, Easy Wind, Casey Jones] doesn’t have some cuts that rival stellar live performances, but kickass versions of songs from Side 2 proliferate in that planet-sized fungus, that sprawling metropolis of tape known as the Dead Vault.
People write about Workingman’s as if the Dead had something to prove. something they had to pull off in the studio. Personally, I had no doubts. Based on the genius of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa and their deep musicality, I knew they could put together pretty much anything they wanted to in the studio, though I catch the drift of that opinion, and I was as caught by surprise as anyone when Workingman’s came out.
So Dead live, sure, that’s the folk wisdom, but they did some interesting and always-worth-listening-to music in the studio that comprises a major part of the Grateful Dead’s identity.
Funny thing about Uncle John’s Band, though. Always a fly in the ointment. In another recent example, I just fell in love with the 50th anniversary remaster of The Band, except they messed up on King Harvest (Has Surely Come), in my opinion. So we collectors must, as per usual, hang on to the earlier editions of an album for one reason or another. Flies. Ointment. Oh, there’s some kind of lesson there. Or not!
The live show (2/21/71) on Discs 2 and 3. Great sound, recorded by Bob and Betty. It’s from the same run as a particular favorite of mine, Three from the Vault, which was performed two nights later at the same hall, the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York.
It’s 1971, Mickey Hart has JUST left (not fired, didn’t quit. left.) for his 44-month sabbatical. A muscular, barroom version of the band emerges. And they’re introducing a truckload of new tunes that were all to become staples: Me and Bobby McGee, Me and My Uncle, Playing in the Band, Bird Song, Bertha, Greatest Story Ever Told, and more. Pigpen does a version of Easy Wind where you could say he just completely massacred the song, or you could say that he deliberately reinvented it, moving choruses and verses and order and lyrics around like the anatomy on a Picasso Moon. Personally, I love it. On Sugar Magnolia, Garcia is playing effects on his guitar he self-describes as “Insect Fear.”** The Main Ten, an experimental tune that eventually became Playing in the Band, started out with lots of Insect Fear. As was frequently their wont, they lock in for the second set. Beat It On Down the Line sticks to its wonderful roots, and is followed by a Wharf Rat that is out of this world.
This live version of the Dead is captured during the runup to performances found on the second eponymous, or Skullfuck album, which came out later in ’71. It’s among my four or five favorite Warner Brothers/GD Records/Arista albums. So I’m very much looking forward to American Beauty AND Skullfuck 50th releases, due this year and next.
For us audiophiles, it’s a little tricky when so much of what I’m saying focuses on sound fidelity…I’m on an interplanetary campaign to get folks to listen to MUSIC, not what comes out of their computer speakers.
But all that whining aside…I love you and let me say this: Click me to hear YouTube’s Music Channel Play the 2020 Mastering of Workingman’s Dead.
And don’t let me stop you from enjoying the heck out of this, you’ll dig it and at least get a sampling of the songs. It’s a wonderful album and well worth the effort it takes to hear it again on a real sound system.
*I’m making fun of the words applied to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album…that thin, wild, mercury sound
** Such experimentation is to be found on Mickey Hart’s first solo album, Rolling Thunder, which features Grateful Dead, Zakir Hussein, Stephen Stills, John Cipollina, Grace Slick, Tower of Power, and many others jamming along with Mickey’s vision for the Dead.