Workingman's Dead

Grateful Dead

Warner Brothers Records, 1970

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


1970 brought about one of the biggest changes for The Grateful Dead, partially spurred by the chilling events at Altamont. Workingman's Dead was the first of two albums which placed Jerry Garcia in a whole new scene. Gone (but not forgotten) were the drawn-out, spacey jams which the band had become known for on record. Also cast aside - at least for a while, anyway - was the dependence on the electric guitar.

Workingman's Dead presented The Grateful Dead in a country-rock, semi-acoustic atmosphere, but it did not diminish their power. If anything, this shift in direction won the band more fans than they could have ever imagined, spurred on in no small part by "Casey Jones" and "Uncle John's Band". While this disc showed the Dead were still getting comfortable in this new musical suit, there were moments of sheer brilliance.

Let's stick with the two best-known songs for a minute. "Uncle John's Band" remains one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard the Dead perform. The band was still working out the smooth edges of true harmony vocalization, but this was a damned impressive effort sealed by the acoustic guitar work from Garcia. "Casey Jones" proved the band hadn't abandoned their electric roots, turning in a powerful performance that, while overplayed these days, still remains a high point in the band's career.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Yet there are other songs on Workingman's Dead which seemed to define the Dead better at this stage in their career. "New Speedway Boogie," another one of the electric numbers, was a direct response to the violence the band witnessed at Altamont, and was a wake-up call to the Age of Aquarius. "One way or another, the darkness got to give," Garcia sings on this song - and he couldn't have been more correct, especially seeing that the times in early '70s America would get only more turbulent.

"Dire Wolf" is one of the underrated classics in the Dead's catalog, and is a fun country-fied track to listen to at top volume. Likewise, "Black Peter" is highly underrated, despite being a very popular number among the Deadheads in the early '70s. The gentle performance of this track, combined with Garcia's quiet yet pleading vocal style, instantly marks this track as a classic. And if you don't get the urge to dance around to "Cumberland Blues," get your pulse checked. (Admittedly, I do like the drawn-out version on Europe '72 a bit more.)

All of this said, there are a couple of moments on Workingman's Dead where things just don't work out as the band might have planned them. "High Time" has never been one of my favorite songs by the Dead, just because it feels like it's a funeral march tempo-wise. "Easy Wind," featuring Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on vocals, doesn't feel like it belongs with this collection of tunes, and might have been a better fit on American Beauty. It's not that I didn't like or appreciate Pigpen's contributions to the Dead, but this one doesn't have the same kind of vibe that the rest of the album shares.

Workingman's Dead marked a major change for the Dead, something they would become known for over the next 25 years of their career. Even with the occasional weak moment, this album still holds up well, and remains one of the few "must-own" albums in the Dead's catalog for the non-Deadheads.

Rating: B

User Rating: A-



© 2001 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.