Released: May 1970
Chart Peak: #27
Weeks Charted: 26
Certified Platinum: 10/13/86
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.
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 to 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.
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.
- Andy Zwerling, Rolling Stone, 7/23/70.
- Billboard, 1970.
Of course they don't sing as pretty as CSNY -- prettiness would trivialize these songs. The sparse harmonies and hard-won melodies go with lyrics that make all the American connections claimed by San Francisco's counterculture; there's a naturally stoned bemusement in their good times, hard times, high times, and lost times that joins the fatalism of the physical frontier with the wonder of the psychedelic one. And the changeable rhythms hold out the promise of Uncle John's Band, who might just save us if we'll only call the tune. Inspirational Verse: "Think this through with me." A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Probably the musical highlight of the band's career -- but it won't blind you. Yet, this one comes closest to capturing the ambience that has made the Grateful Dead more an extended family than musical formulators. The CD's sound quality varies from cut to cut, in some cases providing nice open clarity and in others detailing, but compressed. Still, overall, a noticeable improvement over the LP. B
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
A folk-rock, tightly arranged Dead, singing (in harmony!) some of their best songs, from "Uncle John's Band" to "Casey Jones." * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Workingman's Dead remains the crucial Grateful Dead studio work, inspired by the clapboard honesty of "Music From Big Pink" by The Band. * * * * *
- Joel Selvin, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Workingman's Dead, which came out in 1970, marked a radical shift both in the music of the Grateful Dead and in the counterculture that had nurtured the band. Four previous albums, culminating in Live/Dead (also in 1970), had traced a steady progression into psychedelic adventurism, as the group seemed intent on translating the trips-festival feel of its live shows to vinyl.
On Workingman's Dead, however, guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter wrote a suite of eight songs that are far more than occasions for extended instrumental jams. Songs like "Uncle John's Band" and "Cumberland Blues" were focused and concise: in their largely acoustic arrangements and appealing harmonies, they evoked an older folk tradition and a sense of community based on more than stoned pieties.
Events like the Manson murders and the free concert at Altamont, at which a young black man was killed by the Hell's Angels, had punctured the Utopian dreams of the hippie movement. Workingman's Dead is filled with a consequent sense of foreboding. The album's concluding song, "Casey Jones," transforms Ken Kesey's bus of Merry Pranksters into a steam engine careering out of control, while "New Speedway Boogie" (whose title nods to the setting of the Altamont concert, at a racetrack) cautiously wishes that "One way or another/This darkness got to give."
Like Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding and the Band's Music From Big Pink, Workingman's Dead is a moral self-examination, a modest, even penitent look back, not for nostalgic reassurance but for wisdom and perspective. The album maps the crises of the present onto the past and offers solace only in the ability of essential human virtues ("Oh, what I want to know/Is, are you kind?") to survive even the most harrowing chaos.
- Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone, 5/13/99.
The first "unplugged" rock album is a major masterpiece of 20th century music, combining American traditional C&W with contemporary R&R and jazz, and the prophetic lyrics of Robert Hunter, which establishes him as a poet on a par with Bob Dylan. Nailing the heart and soul of the band, this primer on the Dead includes such signatures as "Casey Jones" and "Uncle John's Band" and gives a glimpse of what lay ahead for an entire culture. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
"We weren't feeling so much like an experimental group," Jerry Garcia said. "More like a good old band." On Workingman's Dead, the Dead strip down for eight spooky country and folk tunes that rival the best of Bob Dylan, especially on the morbid "Black Peter" and "Dire Wolf."
Workingman's Dead was chosen as the 262nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
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