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)
* * * * *
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)