Jul 5, 2018

1970: Workingman's Dead review


Considering a rock group as a separate sociological entity may sound a bit intellectually pretentious, and it probably is, but anyway, some groups are just groups of assorted personages collected around a common musical concept, while there are others who transcend the normal concept of what a group is, in reality.
One such unit is The Grateful Dead. They are not a rock group, they are a complete family unit. And this separates them from the rest of their field by the simple fact that as a family they can only play good music. Also, as a family they show the many human foibles so subdued in a majority of minor rock and roll country bands. They are human and so is their music.
Now, the Dead are not one of the richest groups around. They sometimes ask enormous sums to perform simply because they need this money to enable them to continue their music. Being a rock and roll band is a very expensive business. You have to pay for equipment managers, equipment, food and clothing for a group consisting of over 30 people. They are also famous and as such have been arrested numerous times on various charges and this takes a lot of money to straighten out. So the Dead is really a rock band in serious financial difficulty most of the time.
Yet they still won't hesitate to do a free concert for a cause they believe in. What it all boils down to is that to be a serious rock and roll star you are usually very poor and always very hassled by everyone who wants to grab hold of a little of your fame and spotlight.
Being one of the more famous bands around, the Dead have a long history of problems. Yet, despite all of their problems they will never disappoint their fans and listeners. They have won their highly respected position in the rock hierarchy through thought, word, and deed.

All this leads up to the fact of their new album Workingman's Dead. This album is judged by many as the best Dead effort to date, as well as the one Dead album that took the shortest time to get together. And it is evident that the lp is a work of love, frustration, and pressure.
Having all these legal and financial troubles, they seem to have decided to pack away their accumulated pretentions and set their problems aside and sit down and put together an album of happy, easy flowing, relaxed music.
So this is what Workingman's Dead is all about. The Dead have recycled and gone back to the style and mood of their first album.
Most of the albums they've put out have had something wrong with them. They seemed capable of only getting it together on one side of each album. For example, in "Anthem of the Sun" the first side of the record is perhaps the best piece of rock montage work ever done while the other side is good but certainly is not the quality of genius presented on the first side.
On "Aoxomoxoa" the first side with "St. Stephen; Dupree's Diamond Blues; Rosemary; Doin' That Rag; and Mountains of the Moon" is truly a superb blending of musical rhythms and textures, while the second side has an interesting but totally out of place electronic piece called, "What's Become of the Baby."
On "Live Dead" the sides which contain "Dark Star; St. Stephen" are exactly what the Dead are all about in live performance, while on another side they put on an entire side of "Turn On Your Love Lights," a Pigpen song which is cool because Pigpen is dynamite, but it just doesn't fit with the overall mood of the lp.
When finally making it to "Workingman's Dead" we witness a true rarity. This Dead lp fits together, there is not one song which takes itself out of the mood of the album. This is why I consider this album the best (along with Dave Mason's Alone Together) recorded effort of this somewhat dismal year.
This album is an example of musical texture. It's an album about fluids. It's an album which sets up a definite musical texture and proceeds to explore the finite possibilities of that texture.
As a whole the album is full of many pleasant surprises. This first surprise is the unusual harmony which the group sets up - it's a jumpy harmony which goes off in one direction and in the next instance sets off in an entirely different direction. The other surprise is the exquisite quality of the acoustic guitar which the group shows here for the first time with any dominance. Both Garcia and Weir are knockout acoustic players. Still another surprise is the amazing beauty and quality of Phil Lesh's bass work. The bass lines on this lp are like no other this reviewer has heard in a long time. And yes, Lesh is a helluva better bass player than Jack Casady.
Still another pleasing surprise is the fact that for the first time we are treated to an entire lp of Bob Hunter's lyrics. Hunter has been the poet wordmaster behind most of the Dead's great hits such as Dark Star and St. Stephen.

Usually it's very boring and hard to sit down and write about individual cuts on an album, but in this case not only is it a pleasure but a necessity.
Each cut on the album is a separate entity working within itself as well as with the entire overall concept of the rest of the album.
"Uncle John's Band" is an easy listening tune. It has many enjoyable moments such as the harmony work of the group and the part where they easily slip into a little section where they change into a complex 7/4 time. Complementing the music are the ever present Hunter lyrics:
Come here Uncle John's Band
Playing to the tide 
Come with me or go alone 
He's come to take his children home.
Sort of like the Beatles' cry in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dead are telling us they are a band who plays for its fans as well as for themselves.
Oh, ho, I want to know 
How does the song go.
The next song "High Time" seems to tell us a little about what it means to be a rock and roll star:
We could have us a hard time 
Livin' the good life.
Well I know.

This song is permeated with a number of really nice pedal steel solos and a section of perfectly beautiful high raspy harmony.
"Dire Wolf" is an ancient Dead tune which they have been doing for many years. It's an interesting song I think about the loneliness of a miner.
Don't murder me [ . . . ] 
The "New Speedway Boogie" begins by telling us: "Please don't dominate the rap, Jack, if you got nothing new to say." They seem to be telling us that this is the new Dead and that it's cool:
You can't overlook the lack, Jack 
Of any other highway to ride 
It's got no center dividing line
Very few rules to guide.
In these final moments of the song we hear a faint chorus of clapping. It's really nice.
"Cumberland Blues" is sung by Bob Weir and is one of the best cuts on the album. The song is highlighted by a little banjo and acoustic guitar bridge towards the end.
"Black Peter" is a slow tempo song with a really nasty organ ever present. Yet, the highlight of the entire song is Pigpen's almost unnoticeable harp solo in the middle, followed by a pretty piece of harmony work.
The final two cuts on the album are the most typical Dead songs and are probably the best of the entire album.
"Easy Wind" is Pigpen's big song on the lp. His lead vocal fits nicely with Hunter's lyrics. Yet, the highlight of this cut comes when Garcia and Weir trade licks and Weir goes into a rhythm guitar solo.
"Casey Jones" is a song that is dominated by Hunter's lyrical mastery, the music is kind of easy listening too, with a little Honkey Tonk Woman riff thrown in for the sake of musical dynamics and energy flow.
Drivin' 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.

Workingman's Dead is an album about what the Grateful Dead really want to be.
As Jerry Garcia was quoted in "Rolling Stone" as saying about Workingman's Dead:
"It was something, all this heavy bullshit was flying around us, so we just retreated in there and made music. Only the studio was calm. The record was the only concrete thing happening, the rest was part of that insane legal and financial figment of everybody's imagination, so I guess it came out of a place that was real to all of us. It was good solid work...man, we had been wanting to boogie for a long time."
So out of a despair created by a genre came Workingman's Dead and the new hope, the new direction, the new Dead...
One way or another,
One way or another,
One way or another, 
This darkness got to end. 
"New Speedway Boogie."

(by Joseph Fernbacher, from the Spectrum (Buffalo, NY), 12 October 1970)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

See also:

1 comment:

  1. I posted this review from the Spectrum (the University at Buffalo student newspaper) by itself rather than bundling it with others since it's unusually long and in-depth for a record review. The first half discusses the Dead's history, previous albums, and current situation, while the second half takes us song by song through the album. Fernbacher clearly admires the Dead and has followed them for some time. (He thinks Dire Wolf is "an ancient Dead tune which they have been doing for many years," so he'd been seeing them since '69 at least.) They are so high in the rock pantheon "they can only play good music...they will never disappoint their fans and listeners" - a startling claim!
    He knows the Dead's history (reading up on them in Rolling Stone) and hears the album as a reaction to their recent troubles. He's one of the rare reviewers who singles out both Lesh's bass work and Hunter's lyrics (although he missed that Aoxomoxoa was all-Hunter too). And even more rare, he doesn't think "the new Dead" is a departure from their previous sound, but instead, a return to "the style and mood of their first album." I presume he'd heard many of these songs live so the album wasn't a total surprise for him.