Customer Reviews: Workingman's Dead
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The Grateful Dead's classic 1970 album gets even better on this Rhino reissue. Not only is the album more than doubled in length with bonus material, you also get a terrific live version of "Mason's Children," a band composition that was initially slated to to end side two but was left off the LP because (according to the liner notes) Garcia and Lesh thought the vocals sounded too "pop." The "hidden" bonus track is a 30-second radio spot promoting the album.
The rest of the bonus material is live versions of five of the original songs taken from concerts between 1969-1970. In addition there is an alternate mix of "New Speedway Boogie."
This single-disc release from Rhino is identical to the version included in 2001's pricey--but essential--box set THE GOLDEN ROAD (1965-1973). If you're going to own only one album from this legendary band, the nod would have to go to WORKINGMAN'S DEAD. This album sounds as fresh today as it did thirty-three years ago. (Running Time - 79:54) ESSENTIAL
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on March 4, 2005
Any ill-informed Dead Head who bought this upon its release in June 1970, expecting more of the acid-drenched blues and psychedelia of such recent predecessors as Anthem Of The Sun and Aoxomoxoa, must have had a considerable shock when they dropped the needle into the groove, and track one, Uncle John's Band, began to play.

The hallmark guitar was augmented by mellifluous pedal steel and banjo, and in the place of all the weirdness and experimentation came beautifully-recorded, clean sounding, almost traditional, timeless songs, song after song with three-part harmonies and tunes you almost felt you knew already. The Dead had gone back to their roots, the music they grew up with, and their lyricist, Robert Hunter, had risen to the challenge with songs about miners and engineers that belonged within a rich musical tradition, largely forgotten, that was being re-invented by artists like the Band and Ry Cooder. When they entered the studios behind the Fillmore for two weeks in February 1970 they had been coached in harmony by Crosby, Stills and Nash, knew all the songs they were to record and even the order they were to appear on the album, and were completely focused on their mission. This, and its equally inspired sequel American Beauty, expel the myth that the Grateful Dead were a live band whose studio work was of secondary importance, and can stand up proudly against any other record.

This 79-minute edition, re-mastered in HDCD, doubles the length of the original album with live material and one alternative take. The live recordings, mostly from 1970, are all songs from the album plus one song that had been intended to close side two but was eventually not used (Mason's Children), and show how the Dead were both able to integrate the new material into their set and to play it so convincingly well. The earliest recording here is Dire Wolf, from Santa Rosa CA in June 1969, showing they were previewing their new direction alongside their existing set a full eight months before they entered the studios
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on November 5, 2001
We came into the Dead concert and knew something was up when Jerry Garcia sat down behind a peddle-steel guitar. Instead of the rambling, hit or miss, acid-soaked freeform type of Dead concert we were accustomed to, we heard tightly structured songs, played tightly with economy and clarity. Instead of pyschedelia we were getting blues and country-tinged folk music, albeit played electric with double drummers. It was a new incarnation of the Dead which was to become the Workingman's Dead & American Beauty. It was a surprise.

It still is surprising to listen to this album, especially for those who only know the aura & reputation of the Haight-Ashbury hippie Grateful Dead. Erase that image, and you realize you are listening to quintessential American music, with roots ranging from Appalachian folk to Cajun Bayou to the Oakie dirt farm and the fieldhand's campfire. And it rocks.

This is simply a fine and Classic album. There isn't a wasted song in the bunch, with great music matching Robert Hunter's terrific lyrics. The guitar leads trade with each other over Phil Lesh's restless bass and the rhythms laid down by Kreutzman and Hart, complex and syncopated and kick-ay. And I love Pig Pen on Easy Wind, wailing, hoppin, bluesy and ballsy. It's one of those albums solid from start to finish.

This is great American music played by an American band. It's feet are planted firmly where its title indicates, in the life and music of the workingman. It is timeless.
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on February 28, 2003
ALL of the New GD Remasters are pretty great, but the acoustic tracks on this album really stand out. Even if you've heard the album 1000 times as I have this one, you're going to find something you've never heard before. Like it was recorded yesterday. If you don't have HDCD on your CD Player or DVD (most don't offer that feature), you can get it with a soundcard for your computer. It really makes the sound jump out at you. The bonus tracks on this and the other GD Remasters are great as well, and it's nice to see them put the empty space on the CD's to good use. Well worth the money, and a proud addition to my collection.
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on June 1, 2006
From today's perspective, it's hard to imagine just how much of an impact this album had on the state of contemporary music, not least of all because it was recorded by the Grateful Dead. Up until this album, the Dead were an underground cult phenomenon with little to offer in the way of mass appeal. Furthermore, their previous studio efforts were too strange to suggest that they might be capable of something as extraordinary as what they offer here. More than anything else, the songs on Workingman's Dead sound as if they were old folk/blues songs derived from the public domain and adapted for faithful reproduction. That each song was an original, contemporary composition shows a level of maturity and growth that is simply astounding. Even more astounding is the tight focus of the songwriting. Previous studio albums by the Grateful Dead were rambling and opaque exercises in psychedelia that stood out mostly for their reckless experimentation. Here, the band doesn't waste a single note, while every word paints a specific portrait of the character portrayed.

This sudden improvement in songwriting can be credited entirely to the cementing partnership of guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, who paired up to write six of the album's eight songs, with bassist Phil Lesh participating in another and Hunter writing one in its entirety. The name of the album derives from Garcia's recognition that Hunter's words portrayed mostly working class folk, thus making the project a "workingman's Dead." It's as accurate a description as could be applied. Whether it's a tale of a miner hoping to get work ("Cumberland Blues"), a dying laborer ("Black Peter") or a railroad jack-baller ("Easy Wind"), each character is accurately portrayed in faded sepia tones much like the album jacket. "Casey Jones" does such an accurate job of portraying a doomed train engineer that it elevates Jones to the realm of a 19th century folk legend, much like John Henry.

Workingman's Dead flaunts a mostly acoustic feel, giving the impression that each song could be as old as the characters portrayed. Completely absent here is any sign of rambling jams or gratuitous solos, with the music designed to suit the story as well as the time frame. Only Robbie Robertson and the Band could claim to have been so successful at capturing an era of Americana without sounding forced or derivative. On this album, the Dead capture the feel of an age gone by with an almost eerily personal representation of each song's protagonist. In the process of emulating our heritage, the Grateful Dead managed to create an album of songs that is now as much a part of our heritage as the songs and characters that originally inspired them. A Tom Ryan
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on July 16, 2008
"Workingman's Dead" is music for truckin' down a dusty gravel road. It paints a sonic landscape of Southern mines, railroads, vast desert mesas, tumbleweeds, and purple sage. This is a Grateful Dead album that's a little bit country, a little bit rock n'roll, with some psychedelia thrown in for good measure. In a sense,it's a predecessor to the "freak folk" of Devendra Barnhardt and Kimya Dawson&the Moldy Peaches. This is down home country music, as earthy as a bowl of grits, from the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Workingman's Dead" opens with the hopeful country hymn "Uncle John's Band." Uncle John "comes to take his children home"--a hopeful hymn about the hereafter. There's a sense of homecoming. "Dire Wolf" is a dark ballad with the refrain "please don't murder me." I've had the "Cumberland Blues" earworm. It's a catchy song about the workaday world. "I've got to get down to the Cumberland mine/that's where I spend my time." "Black Peter" has Hammond organ;it's a mournful song. "Casey Jones" is an anti-drug. It's a warning song,with a moral. A train conductor,high on cocaine,heads to disaster.

"Workingman's Dead" in the remastered version,has extra treats. The live version of "Dire Wolf" was performed in Santa Rosa,at the Veterans' Hall. The live versions of "Cumberland Blues" and "Mason's Children" were performed in Portland and Corvallis, Oregon, respectively. The Dead seemed to live in the Wine Country and the Pacific Northwest.

"Workingman's Dead" is psychedelic country! Join Uncle John's Band.
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on December 12, 2000
"Please don't dominate the rap Jack, if you've got nothing new to say". Heeding the advise of long-time dead lyrisist, Robert Hunter, I'll try to be brief and to the point. This is the album that converted many a skeptic, myself included into diehard Dead-Heads. From the sublime harmonies of Uncle John's Band to the rollicking good humor of Cumberland Blues the Dead cover all the bases. Here is where they clearly turned the corner from psychedelic jugband to America's foremost cult phenomenon. What truly makes Workingman's Dead a classic is the way each song segues into the next, forming a seamless thematic path-quilt, paying homage to America's workingman. Finally, there is the masterful cover art by Kelly Mouse. Those marvelous ink drawings on the back cover stare out through the ages, giving further testament to this masterpiece.
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on March 6, 2003
HDCD remastering of Workingman's Dead provides cleaner sound yet band's musical expression is just as forceful. The immediacy elicits a novel appreciation for the country-blues feel that the Dead wanted to capture here; Garcia's vocals on 'High Time' and 'Dire Wolf' didn't sound as grand as on the previously mastered disc. American Beauty and Live Dead have also been enhanced, so those may be worth a listen.
Upgrading to this disc is encouraged on all counts. Included are attractive liner notes with dated photos of each band member and a lucid background essay by Steve Silberman.
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on February 25, 2014
The rating isn't for the music. I could go on at length about that, but I won't bother. Suffice it to say, I first heard this album a long time ago when it came out on vinyl, and then listened to it over and over on long car trips, playing it on a cassette player. I hadn't listened to it in years and no longer had a copy, so, when I found myself singing "Easy Wind" and "New Speedway Boogie" in my head, I came to Amazon and read the glowing reviews of the newly mastered version, "Remastered in Glorious HDCD." Gee, sounded great, and so many reviewers said so. How could I go wrong?

By buying the newly remastered version, that's how.

What is it with you music fans who can't get enough of miserably remastered music? "Oh, it's new -- it has to be better! Technology has advanced so much since it was first recorded!"

No, it doesn't necessarily have to be better. It can be worse -- much worse.

You'll see a lot of reviews here praising the remastering. Typically, the reviewer marvels at how you can hear every instrument so distinctly. True. And that's the problem.

Recording a song successfully is like cooking a recipe successfully. A good chef knows how to blend separate flavors to create a new and different flavor. The new dish has an identity all its own. Similarly, a good record producer (or a composer or a conductor, for that matter) knows how to arrange sounds so the result is a blend that's a coherent whole, a new entity that's different from and greater than the sum of its parts.

Too many producers of remastered digital recordings think they're doing us a favor by surgically separating the component sounds in a composition; but they're not helping. They abstract the individual instruments and voices and spread them out so they don't properly blend. It reminds me of how Huck Finn described the difference between eating a good stew and eating things served separately:

"When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them, -- that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better."

Too often, what these remastering producers give us is an unsavory collection of discrete ingredients with no juice.

Instead of trying to faithfully recreate the original identity of the song by replicating the original blend of its component parts, these second-hand producers seem to treat the task as if the point is to make every separate component equally clear and distinct. But that's not what a good producer does, any more than a good chef puts in equal parts of all the different ingredients seeking to maintain each ingredient's separate identity. Instead of each song being a blended stew with its own identity, these remasters give us tracks that are collections of separate ingredients that don't mix. It's like eating the carrots, the peas, the potatoes, the meat, and the spices separately and drinking the broth by itself. You're getting the same ingredients, but they're not properly cooked together and you're not getting the flavor of the whole.

And that's how this remastered recording of "Workingman's Dead" tastes to me. It weakens the arrangements by isolating the component elements to the point that the original balanced relationship between them is lost. It's as if a surgeon had dissected a body and spread the separate organs on the operating table. It's no longer a living, breathing entity with an identity -- it's an anatomy lesson. The organs no longer function together as a whole. If you've ever wondered why audiophiles rave about the superiority of old vinyl recordings, that's why. The songs on the original vinyl are warm, breathing, vital, coherent entities with unique identities.

In sum, this is a nice collection of songs and arguably the best collection the Dead ever produced, but the quality is much-diminished by this wrongheaded attempt to improve it. The patient was perfectly healthy till the surgeon got his hands on him, and now he's dead.

Luckily, I went to a used music store in my neighborhood tonight and scored a copy of the original CD release. It doesn't have any of the bonus material, but it's much, much, much better than this diluted, punchless, juiceless, bland remaster. It's the album that was released in 1970. The vocals are much more intimate, up-front and alive, the harmonies don't sound like they were recorded in somebody's living room, and unlike with the vapid remaster, the rock music does what it did back in 1970 -- it rocks. Whereas the Glorious Remaster has been emasculated, the original CD master still has the balls of the original vinyl.

And why would you want a remaster that was done years after Jerry Garcia died in 1995? The liner notes to the older CD I picked up tonight read: "Mastering approved by the Grateful Dead." The entire band (minus Pigpen, of course), including the preeminent founding member, approved the original master of the CD. Why would anybody want less? Okay, so you get a bunch of "bonus material" along with a miserably misbegotten remaster of the songs on the original album. So what? Do yourself a big favor, if you like these songs. Get them in the original vinyl version or the CD master approved by Jerry Garcia, who composed the music for six of the eight original tracks. Those are the songs the way he wanted them to be heard. That's the record that people liked in 1970, and it beats the crap out of this remaster. This new mess is not what the album sounded like when the Dead recorded it. Less, in this case, is a lot more.
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on September 3, 2000
the pre-cursor to the all time dead classic, american beauty, workingman's dead is just as good. featuring such deadhead staples as uncle john's band, cumberland blues and casey jones, this disc is pure gold. with other great songs as black peter, pigpen's easy wind and the story of the altamont disaster, new speedway boogie. all the songs on this album are incredible with the bouncy and very musical uncle john's band to the heart wrenching high time and everything in between, this album cannot be passed up, a great pair with american beauty, this should be in every deadheads collection. an amazing experience!
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