Workingman’s Dead is probably the single most important album for the Grateful Dead. At this point in the band’s history they were at odds with and in debt to their record label Warner Brothers. They needed to deliver something that was less experimental, more accessible, than their previous efforts.
Of course, to many other bands, this could have been an excuse to turn in something crassly commercial or trendy, but, to the Dead it was a challenge they were ready for. They had already thrown everything against the wall, experimentally speaking, on Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa. On Workingman’s Dead Lyricist Robert Hunter digs deep into his folk influences and composers Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh (on Cumberland Blues) show their experience with folk, country, and, blues.
The songs were tight and, not surprisingly, well played, but the singing is what stood out for many. The album has stood the test of time earning five star ratings from Allmusic, American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, and even curmudgeon Robert Christgau in Christgau’s Record Guide.
The remaster sounds beautiful, as if you were in the studio. It also includes bonus tracks that were previously available on the 2001 box set The Golden Road (1965-1973). What interests me most, however, is the two discs of live music from the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY.
The live discs include both sets from February 21, 1971. This was captured during a legendary run of six shows at the Capitol. The show from February 19th was released in 2007 as Three From the Vault. I have always thought that these shows, and others recorded at the venue during 1970, merited their own massive box set.
The Capitol Theater has always had a special place in my memories. I attended my first concert there, at the age of fourteen, in 1971. Unfortunately, it was later in that year – I missed the Dead. I would not see them live until the following year. I have digital rips of the tapes from the Grateful Dead’s Capitol Theater concerts and can vouch that the sound fidelity of the Workingman’s Dead 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is far superior to anything I have heard before. Which is why I would welcome more reissues of these concerts. Obviously, the Cap held a special place in the hearts of the Grateful Dead – it wasn’t usual (at least on the East coast) for bands to hold six night residencies at concert halls in 1971. This was a place where they could relax and work out new material without the scrutiny of the rock music press.
The concert contains many gems that were not released on record at the time and therefore were unknown to us fans who did not yet witness the band live: Loser, Playing in the Band, Bertha, Greatest Story Ever Told, Bird Song and Wharf Rat, along with covers of Me and Bobby McGee, Johnny Be Goode, and, Good Lovin’. This was part of the fun of seeing them live during this time and probably the reason why Deadheads could follow them from show to show, their setlist was always expanding. Yet, this is not a concert just for completists. This is a powerful performance by a unique band in their prime playing in an intimate setting before an audience that is there to become one with the band and challenge them to give up something authentic. To me, this is worth even more than the remaster of the original album.
Edit: I just had to add the following: The concert contains a killer China Cat Sunflower that segues into I Know You Rider. It seems that this was not yet common in their sets because the crowd seems happily surprised when I Know You Rider begins.
Also, I’ve been thinking that Workingman’s Dead is a very timely album. A lyric from Uncle John’s Band insists that there “ain’t no time to hate” and New Speedway Boogie tells us that “one way or another this darkness got to give.”