American Beauty

A new Rhino boxed set catalogues the Grateful Dead's journey down The Golden Road.

So how to explain what came next? Workingman's Dead, released on June 14, 1970, six months after the Altamont debacle ("A nice afternoon in hell," Garcia called that experience), was a country-flavored masterpiece, with eight superb songs, the longest of which, "Black Peter," clocked in at just under six minutes. There wasn't a jam to be found. Garcia had fallen under the spell of country music, and it showed. On "Cumberland Blues," he picked his guitar like Don Rich, Buck Owens's right-hand man, and he even played pedal-steel guitar on several cuts. (He had bought the instrument at a Boulder music store while on tour in Colorado.) Garcia and Hunter were now a top-notch songwriting team, and they came up with one gem after another, modern American folk songs such as "Uncle John's Band," "Dire Wolf" and "Casey Jones."

Six months later, they did it again with the equally satisfying American Beauty, which found the band harmonizing -- in key, no less -- like never before. (Friends Crosby, Stills and Nash had given the Dead members some singing lessons.) "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia," "Ripple," and "Truckin'" all became FM-radio favorites, and the Dead found themselves playing larger venues in cities all across the country.

Hardcore Deadheads may disagree, but if it hadn't been for these two albums, the Dead would probably be just a footnote in the history of rock and roll. Unlike Live/Dead, which is very much a product of its time, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are for the ages; they sound just as good today as they did thirty years ago. (The bonus tracks, mostly tentative live versions of many of the albums' songs, are interesting, but they don't hold a candle to the studio originals.)

Come hear Uncle Jerry's band: Rhino Records' new box includes the Grateful Dead's nine full-length albums, as well as a bounty of live material.
Come hear Uncle Jerry's band: Rhino Records' new box includes the Grateful Dead's nine full-length albums, as well as a bounty of live material.

You almost get the feeling that the Dead knew they couldn't possibly top themselves in the studio after creating two masterworks, because their next two albums were live recordings, Grateful Dead (better known as "Skullfuck," or "Skull and Roses") and Europe '72. Not that they aren't great albums: Both are delightful, with terrific songs and strong performances. They sound good, too, having been expertly recorded on sixteen-track machines and sweetened a bit in the studio. Originally a three-LP set, Europe '72 contains a wealth of loping, mid-tempo Garcia-Hunter classics, songs such as "He's Gone," "Brown-Eyed Women," "Ramble On Rose," and "Tennessee Jed." Weir, too, had come into his own as a songwriter, having contributed "One More Saturday Night" and "Sugar Magnolia." (Weir's "Looks Like Rain," a bonus track, features Garcia on pedal steel -- one of the few times he played the instrument in concert.) Pigpen, who was ailing from the liver disease that would eventually take his life, had faded into the background, but he mustered enough strength to perform a powerful version of Elmore James's "Hurts Me Too."

By 1972, the Dead had decided to start their own record company. To satisfy a contract with Warner Bros., they commissioned Owsley "Bear" Stanley, the LSD guru and early Dead patron, to comb through the archives for one more live album. History of the Grateful Dead (Vol. 1) Bear's Choice, released in 1974, contains performances from a two-night stand in 1970 at the Fillmore East, one of the Dead's favorite venues. Meant as a tribute to Pigpen, who had died in 1973 at the age of 27, it's a decent enough album, though hardly essential.

The Dead still had a few good records left in them: Wake of the Flood and Mars Hotel had their moments. Their live performances remained strong at least until the '80s, when growing popularity forced them to play giant sports stadiums. But by the time the Dead left Warner Bros., their glory days were behind them. In retrospect, their relationship with the label, strained as it sometimes was, was a fruitful one. Golden Road documents the Grateful Dead in their prime and debunks a few myths along the way.

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