Jul 19, 2012

1970: Workingman's Dead Reviews


This isn't the magic space band of Live/Dead; rather, this is the Dead in an older, unforced ethic; after all, they were bluegrass players before they were the Dead. Listening to this album is a little like watching the sun go down and not caring that it's over Manhattan.
Remember John Wesley Harding and the readymade simplicity? Dylan wanted the Band to add lead guitar and organ to his work in progress; he wasn't going back as far as it seemed. Workingman's Dead is the album that John Wesley Harding could have been. All of the Dead's musical baggage is here: Jerry's guitar work is more restrained in these settings but it's always identifiably his. There's some Pigpen raunch: "Easy Wind," all rough rhythm and old reliable blues lyrics; heavy magic to clear the air after the most powerful song on the album, "Black Peter." Just listen:
"Just want to have a little peace to die / And a friend or two I love at hand / One more day I find myself alive / Tomorrow may be gone beneath the ground / See here how everything led up to this day / It's just like any other day that's ever been."
Jerry intones the words over a strange guitar riff that somehow never resolves; organ and harp pull the changes through but it's always back to that riff, inexorable as death. After that the only thing to do is break on through. "Easy Wind" is a hard life blues: "I been balling that jack and drinking my wine," but it's beautifully affirmative here; the blues is more about life than death, a way to go on living. "Casey Jones" is a train holler; even if it's a new song it feels very old; just the right song at the right time, something to go away humming:
"Driving that train, high on cocaine / Casey Jones you better watch your speed / Trouble ahead, trouble behind / And you know that notion just crossed my mind."
It's ended on the album but it never really comes to a final full stop: lines and bouncing riffs off that last chorus appear and reappear at the strangest times.
After I'd given up on the car radio one night, a snatch of an old, old song ten years gone came back and I was really getting hung up on it, disgusted and sad, and turned on the radio in the middle of Little Richard's "Freedom Blues" and went upstairs: "Nanananana..."

(by Dan Nooger, from Big Fat no. 6, no date)

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It's so nice to receive a present from good friends.
Workingman's Dead is an excellent album. It's a warming album. And most importantly, the Dead have finally produced a complete studio album. The songs stand up quite nicely right on their own merits, which are considerable.
"Uncle John's Band," which opens the album, is, without question, the best recorded track done by this band. Staunch Dead freaks probably will hate this song. It's done acoustically for a starter. No Garcia leads. No smasho drumming. In fact, it's got a mariachi/calypso type feeling. Finely, warmly-lush tuned guitar work starts it off, with a statement of the beat and feeling. When Garcia comes in with the vocal, joined by a lot of tracks of everyone else's voices, possibly including his, it's really very pretty. The lyrics blend in nicely with the music. "All I want to know / How does the song go?" "Come hear Uncle John's band / playing to the tide / Come with me, or come alone / He's come to take his children home." Near the end of the song there is an a cappella section done by everyone, sounds like about 62 tracks, maybe 63. Just listen to it, and try not to smile.
The years of playing together have shown handsome dividends. "Dire Wolf" points this out. It's a country song. Garcia's steel guitar work is just right, and everyone sings along to the "Don't murder me" chorus.
The country feeling of this album just adds to the warmth of it. "Cumberland Blues" starts off as a straight electric cut, telling the story of trying to make ends meet in bad times. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, a banjo enters the song. By the end, I was back at the old Gold Rush along with everyone else. The banjo brought me there.
Even the cuts that are not directly influenced by country stylings have a country feel to them. I suspect that this is due to the band's vocals. Living out on their ranch seems to have mellowed them all, or at least given a country tinge to their voices. "Casey Jones" is not the theme song you might remember from television. "Driving that train / High on cocaine / Casey Jones you better watch your speed." Listen closely, especially to the cymbal work. Then listen to Phil Lesh's bass mixing with Weir's guitar. Now listen to the cymbal again. Yep. They did it. I don't know who's train is better, Casey's or the Dead's. Living sound effects. Just fine.

(by Andy Zwerling, from Rolling Stone, July 23 1970)

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MYTH AND MUSIC  [a UK review]

Their appearance at the Hollywood Music Festival, in a field near Newcastle-Under-Lyme a couple of months ago, finally brought home the previously obscured excellence of the Grateful Dead, a band which in this country had been considered more for its myth than for its music.
The Dead were one of the first San Francisco bands in the psychedelic revolution of 1967, and their name was linked to those of other legends such as the Family Dog, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the emergence of LSD. But on record they were consistently disappointing, their first three albums having little vitality or freshness, seemingly belying the reports of their many concert appearances.
The brilliance of their 200 minutes at Hollywood, and of Working Man's Dead, were in consequence a revelation, particularly to those who had not heard a real West Coast band before. Mainly, it's the fluid ease with which they can move around inside the loosest of frameworks, creating collective improvisation of the highest quality yet heard in electric music. The secret is that they have been playing together so long that complete relaxation and musical trust has been achieved.
Working Man's Dead is an unassuming collection of eight songs, all written by their guitarist Jerry Garcia, their bassist Phil Lesh, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Each song has that patina of age and sense of history which resembles Robbie Robertson's writing for The Band and which no English band (save possibly the old Fairport Convention and the new Fotheringay) can hope to approach. 'Casey Jones,' for instance, is a rolling ballad about a cocaine-sniffing engine driver which could well be 100 years old. Vocally, they're unique: creaking harmonies, with each singer sounding as if he's really having to strive to find the notes, add to the engagingly ramshackle air of the whole thing.

(by Richard Williams, from the Times (London?), 12 September 1970)

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Well the Great Society has come, but the bombs, bullets, and bullshit still remain. Hail the Revelation. To be truly meaningful, music today should relate to the Apocalypse, and few musicians capture the spirit of any Apocalypse as well as the Grateful Dead. Early on they brought us Anthem of the Sun, which prepared those who were listening to it for the impending climax which may be heard in Live Dead. Now they have given us a collection of tunes entitled Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros. 1869) to which we can truck along in the aftermath of said Apocalypse. Hang loose, ride low and cruise on through! No sweat.
Now for a few words about the tunes, all of which are worthy of the antiapocalypse. Typical of everything is "Uncle John's Band." This is a mellow, folksy, good time number featuring Jerry Garcia on vocal and acoustic guitar with Bob Weir on second acoustic guitar singing harmonies with Phil Lesh.
As the great diamond needle progresses through the grooves, modifications of the instrumentation towards the electrical side are perceivable. Most notable is Garcia's use of peddle steel guitar on "High Time" and "Dire Wolf," giving things more of a country flavor (Heavens to Lyserge momma, what's the Dead doing playing country?). Live witnesses will know that it's not so new, and historians would know that the Dead started as a jug band. The wheel hath almost come the full circle.
Upon flipping the disk over, one will catch some nice banjo picking (presumably by Garcia) on "Cumberland Blues." So gang, it's game time; what's missing so far from this gift from the Dead? Obviously, Pig Pen. Fear not, since Mr. Pen comes through with one of his wonderfully raunchy vocals on "Easy Wind," a more electric number with some of that good Dead double drumming by Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
The abovementioned tunes and others comprise Workingman's Dead, which marks the Dead's first recorded venture into country and folksy areas. They do it very well and without pretention. What could be better after the Apocalypse?

(by Bob Lynn, from the Daily Bruin, 17 July 1970)

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The Dead, grateful or great-ful? Happy, Sud, a family of people, changing, and growing together with each note that Jerry Garcia flows vibrantly out at you. Beset by a manager stealing them blind, constantly in debt, getting busted with thirty-seven people in New Orleans, yet staying high through all of this, the Dead continue their beautiful vibrations. Playing free gigs anywhere, and blowing heads' minds in New York City with a week of midnight concerts at the Fillmore, life flows on. Going from the simplicity of their first album and soaring through realms of psychedelic ramblings and constantly experimenting on their next two albums, they share the magic of their music on "Live Dead." Then Altamont happened, where with the Stones they helped organize a disaster, leaving them shattered with the violent reality of Amerika, 1970. In the midst of all of this, they slipped away into the quiet of a recording studio and came out with the place of "Workingman's Dead," a nice soft thing to pass a high away.
"Workingman's Dead" is so incredibly easy, for a Dead album, to listen to. The first impression is one of pessimism that the heart of the Dead is missing, but then the drums get your feet tapping, and Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and Jerry Garcia leave notes floating gently in your head, and the lyrics are superb. The opening act "Uncle John's Band" tells you where [they're] at with the prophetic, hopeful lines, "One way or another, this darkness got to end." [sic] Played on the radio, the god-damn is cut, chopped out, and bringing you down, 'cos god-damn is all one can say watching Nixon and Agnew continue their asinine war on humanity. The Dead answer this depression with "Casey Jones," suggesting how to avoid the day to day blues and ride that train, listen to it and smile, that's what the Dead are for.
Each cut changes from the joyous celebration of "Cumberland Blues" to Pig Pen's own self-portrait in "Easy Wind," "'cos I'm a stoned-jack baller, and my heart is true, and I'll give everything that I got to you." Take it lightly, The Dead meant it to be that way, but it's still one of the best albums this year.

(by Kevin Lovett, from the Griffin (Buffalo, NY), 23 September 1970)

See more reviews:


  1. I added a review from England. Williams had been bored by the Dead's earlier studio albums, but came around with Live/Dead (which he reviewed earlier in the year). He then went to see them at the May '70 Hollywood Festival and found it "a revelation," remarking on "the brilliance" of their "fluid ease" and "collective improvisation of the highest quality yet heard in electric music." He likes Workingman's Dead for different reasons, struck by the antique-sounding folky songs, and compares it to the Band.

  2. I added a review from the Daily Bruin, UCLA student paper. It's rather tongue-in-cheek, presenting the Dead as the ideal post-apocalyptic band (suiting the mood of 1970).
    "What's the Dead doing playing country?" The reviewer approves though, and has apparently seen them live since he knows the Dead have been doing some country stuff (and these songs) at shows. And he's aware of their jug-band origins, so "folksy" tunes aren't really new for them. He's also relieved that Pigpen still gets to contribute.
    Somewhat prophetically, he says "we can truck along" with the Dead...

  3. I added a review from the Griffin, the Canisius College newspaper in Buffalo. Similarly to the last review, it presents the new album as nice & easy Dead music to listen to during these violent times: "ride that train, listen to it and smile, that's what the Dead are for."
    One thing to note about some of these student reviews is the political background behind listening to an album, usually unspoken but upfront here - the Dead are the counter to the government's "war on humanity," and instead of being criticized for the lack of political comment in their music, they're praised as a source of ease and relaxation for depressed listeners. This reviewer is aware of the Dead's recent history, and is happy that despite their troubles they're still "staying high" and "continue their beautiful vibrations."

  4. Though he wasn't a music critic, Hunter S. Thompson had a few words on this album, in a letter he wrote to a Rolling Stone editor in December 1970:
    "If the Grateful Dead came to town, I'd beat my way in with a fucking tire iron, if necessary. I think Workingman's Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 and 'Mr. Tambourine Man' (with the possible exception of the Stones' last two albums...)."
    He considered Workingman's Dead one of the best albums of the '60s, on par with Dylan's.