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American Beauty

One of the enduring myths about the Grateful Dead is that they were better live than in the studio. According to their legion of fans, the cultish Deadheads, the best way to experience the band was in concert, where, depending on the vibe -- and the acid -- anything might happen. On a good night, they were magical.

But their live shows were notoriously inconsistent. On some nights, the group -- lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, among others -- couldn't stay in tune to save their lives, and their singing could be painfully off key. Their jams often descended into mindless noodling, and Kreutzmann and Hart's extended drum excursions were usually good opportunities to head for the bathroom.

Their studio offerings, too, were uneven, but two of them -- Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970 -- are arguably their best albums. There's no denying that there is (or rather, there was) nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. But despite the abundance of live Dead recordings now available, these two remain the Dead's most essential albums.

Both are included in Grateful Dead: The Golden Road (1965-1973), a massive new boxed set from Rhino Records. In addition to all nine of the Dead's Warner Bros. recordings, it features nine hours of previously unreleased material, including a two-disc set of the band's earliest known studio tracks, from 1965, and some stellar live cuts from 1966. There's also a 76-page booklet with rare photos, a discography, and a lengthy essay by longtime Dead publicist Dennis McNally. The newly remastered discs are much improved sonically over their previous incarnations; for the moment, though, Rhino has no plans to release them individually. Considering all the goodies you get, the $150 list price isn't bad. It'll make a fine Christmas present for your favorite Deadhead.

From the beginning, the Dead were eclectic -- and fickle. Originally called the Warlocks, they cut their teeth playing an amalgam of folk, country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Pigpen, a White Negro steeped in the blues, handled the vocals on the more rock-oriented numbers, while Garcia, who once dreamed of playing banjo with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, sang the folkier ones. (Weir, at least in the early days, didn't seem to do much at all.) No one had an especially strong voice, and in the 1965 demo recordings, the bandmembers often struggle to nail the harmonies (a problem that never really went away).

But there's something fresh and compelling about the band's sound from this period. Most of the songs are covers, but you can hear the group putting its cosmic stamp on the material. Several numbers, including "I Know You Rider" and "Cold Rain and Snow," would become Dead staples. Too bad the chilling "In the Pines," a song that dates back to the '20s, never did. Recorded live, it's sung by Garcia in a quivering voice while Pigpen plays spooky, minor-key riffs on his Vox Continental organ.

Signed by Warner Bros. Records in 1966, the Dead spent four days in Los Angeles making their first album, The Grateful Dead. Given the circumstances -- Garcia, Lesh, and Kreutzmann were jacked up on Ritalin; the straitlaced Warner executives found the band downright scary -- it's a surprisingly good album, full of wonderful songs and tight playing, particularly by Garcia (though he later complained about the record's rushed tempos). Admittedly, it didn't quite capture the band's full-blown live sound, but it proved the Dead were quite capable of making a solid studio album.

For Golden Road, Rhino has extended several of the disc's songs beyond their original fadeouts, with nearly a minute added to Pigpen's take on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." Bonus cuts include four unreleased songs from the Los Angeles sessions (Pigpen's twelve-bar blues "Tastebud" is especially good, and so is Garcia's reading of "Death Don't Have No Mercy") plus two versions of "Viola Lee Blues" -- a three-minute edited one and a 23-minute live one.

Of the Dead's second album, Anthem of the Sun, Garcia once said, "We weren't making a record in the normal sense." That's an understatement. It's a musical train wreck, a pretentious pastiche of live segments and studio noisemaking. Even Deadheads have long had mixed feelings about this one.

Axomoxoa holds up somewhat better, partly because Garcia's old folksinging partner Robert Hunter had become the band's primary lyricist by the time it was recorded. "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Cosmic Charlie," in particular, are rootsy, character-driven slices of Americana, and they hint of good things to come. But "What's Become of the Baby," recorded and mixed, according to Garcia biographer Blair Jackson, on nitrous oxide, is unlistenable. Three of the album's four bonus tracks are lengthy studio jams; the sublime "Clementine Jam" has hints of John Coltrane, an obvious influence on Garcia's free-form guitar work. Apparently it wasn't necessary for the band to play before a live audience to reach dazzling improvisational heights.

Recorded at various San Francisco venues in 1969, Live/Dead plays today like a musical time capsule from those drug-induced times. Always a favorite among Deadheads, it catches the Dead at its psychedelic peak, with some old-fashioned rhythm and blues thrown in for good measure. It sold well and, more than anything, firmly established the "better live than in the studio" myth of the Grateful Dead.

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.)

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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David Hill