Classic Albums: American Beauty – The Grateful Dead

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Classic Albums
Tags: , , , ,

€9.99 is usually a bit more than I like to pay for my bargain bin CDs, but having just moved office to the financial district, and after spending several zen-like hours waiting for the tech crowd to fix the network and my broken computer, I found myself riding the Eason’s escalator to the top floor, which is mostly taken up by one of the branches of Tower records and, among other things has the best selection of jazz that I’m aware of in this country (but more of that elsewhere). Once there, of course I had to buy something.

I’ve never considered myself a Dead Head. I probably saw them half a dozen times from the early to late 70s, mainly because that was what everybody else was doing that night. I liked them well enough, but I wasn’t really into the band the way some people were and I know I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have at the time. I’m not sure, but that may make me a bit unusual considering the time and place. The Dead seemed to be a band that you either loved or knew about in name only. Even at the peak of their commercial popularity in the mid 70s, when “Terrapin Station” and “Shakedown Street” were released (some of you may recall this as the “Disco Dead” era), the outsiders who went to see them didn’t really appreciate what they had signed on for. For example, The Grateful Dead were famous for their all-night music marathons that required no support act. Yet one morning after, I heard tell of a young woman who walked out of the concert when the support band came on to do a second set!

Their name probably did them no favors in attracting the uninitiated. Even now I meet people who think that The Grateful Dead must have been a heavy metal band or, more likely, some psychedelic, acid-ridden collective. Indeed, they did like to run to excess in that 60s sort of experimental way with extended solos, odd chord and time changes, and 20 minute two-man drum solos against guitar feedback. One listen to their 1969 album “Live Dead” (get it?) proves that.

But at their core, the Grateful Dead were really a band in the style of what has lately become known as Americana; electric country/rock/folk music (emphasis with this album on the country rock) that almost never fit comfortably on top 40 radio. Even to someone like me who, at that time, was more interested in a well-produced mainstream pop or rock tune, they had songs that stuck in the brain. Besides the album’s legendary status, it was on the strength of three such songs that I purchased this CD; the acoustic, country-picking, happy-go-lucky “Friend of the Devil”, the upbeat, easy-going “Sugar Magnolia”, and the boogie-shuffle road trip “Truckin”, arguably their biggest “hit”. If you’re not familiar with any of these tracks then you might want to consider plugging the gap in your musical knowledge base.

The surprise for me on listening to the entire CD was that all the songs stand up to those classic tracks. “American Beauty” is proably the most accessible album the Dead ever released, and perhaps their best. (For my money, “Workingman’s Dead” runs a close second, and “Terrapin Station” is also a strong contender.) You can rack this album comfortably between the The Eagles and The Band. If it’s not as polished as the former then it’s certainly smoother than the latter. It’s no fluke that “American Beauty” was featured on an episode of VH-1’s Classic Albums.

The band is loose and in top form here with their three lead singers; Gerry Garcia, Bob Weir, lead and rhythm guitarists respectively, and keyboardist Pigpen (Ron Mckernan) all taking their turns at singing and songwriting. They are aided lyrically (as usual) by Robert Hunter. The arrangements sound deceptively spontaneous yet obviously well rehearsed. The harmonies will set your spine a-tingling. Phil Lesh shows why he’s held in such high regard as a bass guitarist.

I probably sound like some old 60s geezer reminiscing about the past, but it might interest you to know that I’ve met any number of people young enough to be my children who are more familiar with this band than I am. It’s time for you to dispense with your preconceptions and buy this album. Now!

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