American Beauty

Grateful Dead

Warner Brothers Records, 1970

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Prior to 1970, the Grateful Dead were known as one of the most free-form, trippy bands out on the San Francisco scene. Taking the credo of "Tune in, turn on, drop out" to heart, Jerry Garcia and crew captured the psychedelic mood of the times and became the leading band of the genre.

But then came Altamont, where the murder of an audience member by a member of Hell's Angels brought an end to the "Summer Of Love." For the Dead, the events of that day were a wake-up call that they answered with a radical shift in their music.

The result of this shift resulted in two albums - one of which, American Beauty, is one of the finest moments in the history of the Grateful Dead. (Before she heard this album, my mother wasn't crazy about the fact her son had become a nouveau Deadhead. One listen to this album, and her opinion changed.)

Moving away from the free-form psychedelic jazz they had been performing, Garcia and crew turned to a more folk-spirited acoustic vein - and the songwriting became extremely introspective. Part of the reason for this was the loss of Garcia's mother and bassist Phil Lesh's father at the time of recording. The Garcia/Robert Hunter track "Brokedown Palace" was Garcia's farewell to his mother - and when Garcia died in 1995, this song was quoted in many tributes: "Fare you well, fare you well / I loved you more than words could tell."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The album opens with a Lesh composition, "Box Of Rain," that is an incredibly powerful and beautiful track. Songs like this made people wish that he tried his hand more often at songwriting. (Let it be known the last song the Dead ever played in concert was "Box Of Rain" - the second night in Chicago, Lesh surprised the audience and the band by calling for this song as a second encore.)

Mandolin artiste David Grisman guests on two tracks, "Friend Of The Devil" and the lovely song "Ripple." Grisman's work perfectly complements the Dead, and I personally wish that the band has asked Grisman to stay on with them. "Ripple" is one of the best five tracks the Grateful Dead ever recorded, and must be heard by everyone, especially those who think the Dead are terrible.

American Beauty is best known for two radio-friendly tracks, "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin'," the latter being the song that defined the Dead to the music world until "Touch Of Grey" came out in 1987. And while the song has become a slightly overplayed track, still maintains its power almost 30 years after it was recorded. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir takes his turn as lead throat on these tracks, and handles the chores well.

The disc also features the final vocal performance by keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on "Operator." Sadly, this is not one of Pigpen's best works, though it does grow on you in time. (McKernan died in 1973.)

Songs like "Attics Of My Life" are signs of how good this band could harmonize - forget the doped-out, fucked-up inages of the group, this was one band that took their music very seriously. The tracks on American Beauty serve as ample proof - not that their earlier work was any less proof.

And Garcia, a notoriously hot-and-cold guitarist, definitely was "on" during this album. His playing has rarely sounded more fluid, and his leads are crisp and free-flowing.

American Beauty is one of those albums which belongs in every serious music listener's collection, Deadhead or no. Just the quality of the songwriting and performance is enough to make this one of the best albums ever recorded.

Rating: A

User Rating: A-



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.