‘Workingman’s Dead’ Gets a Classy, Remastered and Expanded 50th Anniversary Release

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Grateful Dead | Workingman’s Dead-50th Anniversary Edition | (Rhino/Warner Brothers)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to imagine what Grateful Dead fans circa 1970 thought when they first heard the band’s fourth studio release. After all, this predominantly acoustic dive into Americana was a far cry from the psychedelic, experimental and jam oriented music the band had founded its career on to that point.

And even though their supporters fell more into a large cult category at this stage, the compact, rootsy songs on June 1970’s Workingman’s Dead (and it’s Nov., 1970 follow-up American Beauty) were a sharp if not totally illogical departure.  The Workingman’s album followed November 1969’s popular Live/Dead, an acid fueled soundtrack for hippies that featured extended, wandering space improvisations including an over 20 minute version of “Dark Star.”

Rhino’s ongoing 50th anniversary expanded editions of all the Dead releases continues here. It replicates the 10 tracks on Workingman’s Dead on disc one of this triple platter in remastered sound. That’s a disappointment for a rather short disc that clocks in at just over a half hour. The bounty of demos, rehearsals and other rarities has been recently made available to stream though.  Still, the improved audio is beautifully rendered and provides more breathing room to appreciate the intertwining guitars on the primarily acoustic track list.

With songs as timeless as the opening subtle chugging of “Uncle John’s Band” with its exquisite C,S & N styled harmonies, the floating pedal steel country of “Dire Wolf,” the bluegrass/rockabilly of “Cumberland Blues” and Pigpen’s gutsy country blues showcase “Easy Wind,” the set list includes songs that would become staples in Dead concerts for decades to come.

The two drummers (Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) aren’t evident on most of these low key tunes where percussion isn’t a significant part of the sound. And other than Pigpen’s few lead vocals, he is barely noticeable in the mix. Regardless, there is no doubt that Workingman’s Dead not only explored new sonic and musical territory for the band, but exposed them to a larger audience by emphasizing a more organic approach.

The reissue notably includes a 2 ½ hour concert recorded at Portchester New York’s Capitol Theatre on Feb. 21, 1971, spread over two discs. Since the performance was after the release of both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, there are plenty of selections from both along with other Dead classics such as “Bertha,” “Loser,” and “China Cat Sunflower.” 

The audio on this nearly 50 year old gig is superb.  Each instrument and especially the vocal harmonies are crisp and clear. And even though drummer Mickey Hart is MIA (he was at the beginning of his sabbatical with the band), there is no lack of percussive groove with just Kreutzmann, even on the drum solo section of the show appended to a 17 minute version of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.”

Again, Pigpen is mostly missing in the mix for large segments of the gig, although he is trotted out for the blues of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee,” “Easy Wind” and the aforementioned “Good Lovin’” finale. Overall the band is in spirited, energized form and it’s enlightening to hear early live versions of selections from both Workingman’s and Beauty that would stay in the Dead’s set for years, and are still some of the most beloved of the group’s extensive legacy.  

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