It’s so nice to receive a present from good friends.
Workingman’s Dead is an excellent album. It’s a warming album. And most importantly, the Dead have finally produced a complete studio album. The songs stand up quite nicely right on their own merits, which are considerable.
“Uncle John’s Band,” which opens the album, is, without question, the best recorded track done by this band. Staunch Dead freaks probably will hate this song. It’s done acoustically for a starter. No Garcia leads. No smasho drumming. In fact, it’s got a mariachi /calypso type feeling. Finely, warmly-lush tuned guitar work starts it off, with a statement of the beat and feeling. When Garcia comes in with the vocal, joined by a lot of tracks of everyone else’s voices, possibly including his, it’s really very pretty. The lyrics blend in nicely with the music. “All I want to know/How does the song go?” “Come hear Uncle John’s band/playing to the tide/Come with me, or come alone/He’s come to take his children home.” Near the end of the song there is an a cappella section done by everyone, sounds like about 62 tracks, maybe 63. Just listen to it, and try not to smile.
The years of playing together have shown handsome dividends. “Dire Wolf” points this out. It’s a country song, Garcia’s steel guitar work is just right, and everyone sings along to the “Don’t murder me” chorus.
The country feeling of this album just adds to the warmth of it. “Cumberland Blues” starts off as a straight electric cut, telling the story of trying to make ends meet in bad times. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, a banjo enters the song. By the end, I was back at the old Gold Rush along with everyone else. The banjo brought me there.
Even the cuts that are not directly influenced by country stylings have a country feel to them. I suspect that this is due to, the band’s vocals. Living out on their ranch seems to have mellowed them all, or at least given a country tinge to their voices. “Casey Jones” is not the theme song you might remember from television. “Driving that train/High on cocaine/Casey Jones you better watch your speed.” Listen closely, especially to the cymbal work. Then listen to Phil Lesh’s bass mixing with Weir’s guitar. Now listen to the cymbal again. Yep. They did it. I don’t know who’s train is better, Casey’s or the Dead’s. Living sound effects. Just fine.