Jun 25, 2018

1970: Workingman's Dead reviews


Whether you're ready for it or not, the Grateful Dead has a new album out. It's on Warner Bros., and it's called "Workingman's Dead."
Chances are strong you aren't ready, as the Dead are doing something you've probably never heard them do before. The album has eight cuts (rather high for them), and they're amazingly close to what folks might call commercial.
It's a far cry from the complex, highly sophisticated, bluesy acid rock of the yesterday Dead. Their new album is a series of very tight vocal harmonies, grounded in country music, somewhat after the fashion of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The Dead are nowadays into some very happy things, leaving heavy electronics, extended instrumental riffs, and the world of chemical highs somewhere in the past.
This album is a smiley, lively little number dedicated to the wonder of people and the awesomeness of human relationships.
It's a very strange album - hardly what we would expect from the Dead. It's such a strange album, in fact, that it could very well be a put on.
But that isn't important. What is important is the fact that the Dead has turned out a very nice album loaded with nice thoughts and happy sounds. It'll probably make you smile.

(by Jim Knippenberg, from the "Rock Records" column, Cincinnati Enquirer, 14 June 1970)

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It's impossible, but the Grateful Dead, the original acid-rock group, have gone country. Of course, on "Workingman's Dead" (Warner Bros.), they sort of have their own thing going at the same time.
Listen to the first song, "Uncle John's Band," and you'll see what I mean. It sounds like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young mixed with The Band, mixed with country influences, but if you listen to the words, you'll fall over. Lyricist Robert Hunter has no respect for country conventions and freaks out just as much as he ever did.
Among other things, you'll find a card game with a 600-pound wolf and an engineer high on cocaine on this album, along with some excellent harmony and instrumental work. Jerry Garcia's guitar sounds like it's agonizing to hold back the blue notes, but it does fine on the whole. Some of the songs seemingly go on too long, but if you listen with utmost attention, you'll find them anything but boring. Still, I'll take the old Grateful Dead back on the next album - I hope.

(by Al Rudis, from the Chicago Sun-Times, printed in the Tampa Tribune, 5 July 1970 - also in other papers such as 7/11/70 Binghamton Press, NY, under different titles)

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The Grateful Dead, the San Francisco band best known for its flowing-but-enigmatic "psychedelic" rock, has released an album of simple country folk music.
That they would do this is not so surprising. Many groups adapt their style to include whatever is fashionable at a particular moment, and country folk is becoming quite fashionable. What is surprising is that this new album, "Workingman's Dead," is so good.
After years of being among the best exponents of San Francisco inner-direction, it is hard to believe that The Grateful Dead could change their music so radically and make it sound convincing.
The step from their last album, "Live Dead," and particularly from the brilliant impressionism of the long track, "Dark Star," to the outer-directed happy funkiness of "Workingman's Dead," is a large one. They made that step with grace and imagination.
On recent road trips, the Dead have featured as part of their act a set by a group they call "New Riders of the Purple Sage," an abbreviated version of the Dead. This is their country folk group and it is every bit as convincing as the album.
Like many of today's rock musicians, the Dead were at one point folk musicians.
But that was a long time ago. Who would have thought that their roots could have survived all that time and all that loud psychedelia so well?
There are three particularly exceptional tracks on the album: "Uncle John's Band," "Dire Wolf," and "Casey Jones." These are upbeat, almost goodtime songs, and they churn along nicely. Beneath the country surface there is a solid bluesish base which comes through well on songs like "Easy Wind," which sounds like a traditional carrying-a-heavy-load laborer's song, jolted by gutty guitar funk. It's an exceptional record.

(by Mike Jahn, from the "Sounds of the Seventies" column, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 19 July 1970)

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And some shorter reviews...

"Workingman's Dead" (Warner Bros. 1869) - The Grateful Dead apparently is on a creative kick. This is a beautifully crafted, full-of-insight glimpse at sophisticated rockery. "Uncle John's Band" is of the folk-country genre, with splendid musical and vocal harmonies. "New Speedway Boogie" is a more typical jam: meandering, maneuvering free-flow.

(Wayne Harada, "On the Record," from the Honolulu Advertiser, 25 June 1970)

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Without a doubt one of the new super albums is the Grateful Dead's 'Workingman's Dead.' It is a refreshing album; it is alive and well into country clarity and electric madness. It brings out the musicianship of the Dead, which people don't often realize; they are incredible musicians. Most people associate the Dead with San Francisco, Owsley, free concerts and fine heads, but their music is as right on as their life style. Listen carefully to "Casey Jones," and "Easy Wind," their beauty is all there, electric, bluesy, and climaxing.

(Susan Brink, "Sweetwater Concert a Total Bring Down," Miami News, 6 July 1970)

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Workingman's Dead - Grateful Dead (Warner Brothers 1869)
The "Dead" aren't recognized too much around here as being a top group, but believe me they are. Underground or not, the "Dead" are one of the few pieces left of the San Francisco "sound." They haven't had any personal hassles either. Which is odd when you think of all the groups that have.
Well, always improving, the "Dead" are back again with some more good material. "Uncle John's Band" is catchy. It also shows some good vocal work. Jerry Garcia, who's been on a lot of LPs lately, brings his steel guitar in on "Dire Wolf." "Cumberland Blues," "Easy Wind," "Black Peter," and "New Speedway Boogie" are some of the other good tracks.
It's a great record, really, and I hope the "Dead" stick around. We need 'em.

(Dink Lorance, "The World of Music," the Moline Dispatch (IL), 11 July 1970)

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Workingman's Dead, Grateful Dead (Warner Bros. WS-1869)
You can always expect something different from The Dead. Whatever it is, it's usually well-done, as this album demonstrates.
Jerry Garcia is far into country-western and his influence is everywhere. It's an album full of lush harmonies and hard-driving country-rock. The musicianship is excellent, displaying the amazing versatility of the group. It is enough to make an instant fan out of anyone.

(Marshall Fine, "Record Reviews," Minneapolis Star, 28 July 1970)

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Workingman's Dead, a disc by the Grateful Dead, is in the forefront of the whole rock scene. From the start, the Dead have played traditional blues, but they really bring it all together here. Their new sound, on Warner Bros., is an easy, tight, blues-rock thing, with good lyrics and the most solid instrumentation of recent times. Tunes range from "Casey Jone," a blues hit about engineer Casey Jones riding the cocaine trail and headed for trouble, to "Uncle John's Band," the fastest-moving single on the album, to "Easy Wind," a tight blues number lamenting the fate of the workingman and featuring a nice harp solo by Pig-Pen McKernan.
The group is into new instruments too, from the violin to the banjo.

(Barbara Lee, "On the Record," Camden Courier-Post (NJ), 29 August 1970)

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Workingman's Dead - Grateful Dead (Warner Bros.)
Good tight arrangements and a general softening up has brought the Dead back to life. Lots of old-timies and blues make Workingman's Dead a surprise treat after their far from great Live and Dead album released last year. Jerry Garcia and the group have obviously been readjusting for a broader audience and the effect has been good. Cumberland Blues, Casey Jones, and New Speedway Boogie are some of the best cuts ever put down by the San Francisco sixsome.

("The Music Box," Richmond Review (BC), 9 September 1970)

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Workingman's Dead, Grateful Dead. Warner Bros. 1869.
This country-flavored best seller by San Francisco's legendary band has been severely overpraised by most rock journalists. True, the Grateful Dead has a highly disciplined, authentic country instrumentation, but the songs are so uneventful, so lacking in emotion that the album is without impact. It is, in the end, hollow alongside such fine country-oriented albums as the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

(Robert Hilburn, "Pop Briefs," Los Angeles Times, 16 August 1970) 

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1 comment:

  1. This collection of short reviews shows the collective surprise felt by critics who first heard Workingman's Dead at the time. Where had the real Grateful Dead gone? Was this a put-on? Were they finally going commercial?
    Nonetheless the reviews are almost entirely positive, surprised by the quality of the songs and music. One review called the Dead "among the best [groups] that are influenced heavily by the country and blues idioms. The playing is clean, the tunes well constructed, the singing attractively free and easy." ("Record Previews," Asbury Park Press 10/11/70)
    Most of these critics seem happy to bid farewell to the psychedelic Dead of yore (although one guy still hopes "the old Dead" will come back on the next record). As one review put it, "The Grateful Dead were ripping it up in the first psychedelic days of the long-lost sixties. Now they live on a ranch and play happy country-rock."

    There were many articles in 1970 about the increasing turn of rock musicians to country music, and some reviewers here note that the Dead have hopped on the bandwagon and "gone country." (Jahn says the Dead are simply "adapting their style to whatever is fashionable," and another critic says they're "readjusting for a broader audience.") There are some telling comparisons to CSN&Y and the Band, although most reviewers seem unaware of the Dead's early folk & blues roots. Other reviews accused them of imitating the Byrds, or picking up "the Nashville sound."

    Only one review mentions Robert Hunter, who was then unknown outside the credits of earlier Dead albums. The Sydney Morning Herald (in Australia) had one of the few reviews at the time recognizing that some of these songs were derived from older folk traditions, though it wasn't sure what to make of that:
    "The Grateful Dead rework several traditional blues ideas for their LP... The album is peopled with the ghosts of John Henry, Casey Jones, and other legendary sons of the soil. If Jerry Garcia and his group did not play such superb guitar and harmonica, you would think that songs like 'Cumberland Blues' and 'Casey Jones' were intended as send-ups. It doesn't come out that way." (Gil Wahlquist, "On Record," 12/27/70)

    Many of these critics were Dead fans already - "incredible musicians," "always improving," "you can always expect something different."
    Perhaps due to the compressed record-review format, hardly anyone mentions the Dead's current live shows, though several had seen them live. But the Dead had been playing these songs for many months, so the record wouldn't have been totally new to recent showgoers. Jahn mentions that the Dead are now playing with the New Riders, "an abbreviated version of the Dead" (at that point many people didn't see them as a separate group).

    I'd hoped to find more negative reviews, but here only Hilburn has a complaint that would become more frequent in later years: that the Dead's music was boring and unemotional.