Workingman's Dead - 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

The Grateful Dead couldn't catch a break. Sure, they were the head-trip belles of San Francisco's 1960s psychedelic ball, but they were unable to get their recording act together enough to cut an album that best captured their true spirit—that is, until they struck prospector's gold with their fourth studio album, June 1970's Workingman's Dead. By dialing back on the overtly psychedelic-cum-outré experimental modes that dominated June 1968's Anthem of the Sun and June 1969's Aoxomoxoa and instead zeroing in on their folk-bred songcraft for Workingman's, the Dead had finally found their recording niche at last.


Rhino has been curating the Dead's extensive aural archives for decades, and seeing how they're well into regularly recognizing the band's ongoing half-century milestones, we now have a 3 CD deluxe edition for Workingman's Dead in hand. The last two CDs contain 2.5 hours of a heretofore unreleased complete of-era concert from the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, on February 21, 1971. Engineer David Glasser (a noted Grammy Award winner for helming 1997's Anthology of American Folk Music) applied his mastering magic to the 16-track analog master tapes of this gig after being mixed by Jeffrey Norman at Dead guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir's Marin County TRI Studios. (Spoiler alert—it's much better-sounding than any unauthorized version of it you may have already heard.)

A 10,000-piece limited-edition picture disc LP of the studio album is available for the more wax-centric among us. Of course, I would have loved it if the 24-bit/48kHz 5.1 DVD-Audio mix from 2001 produced/designed by Dead drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart and engineered/supervised by Tom Flye had been included in the bigger anniversary package as well—or even given an update/refresher on Blu-ray—but you can't have it all.


At any rate, the Workingman's 3 CD foldout shell is housed in a sepia-toned slipcase sporting a 3D-ized version of the vintage band cover shot, complete with a tribute to their late chief lyricist Robert Hunter (who passed away in September 2019) on the back. Essayist David Fricke makes sure the Dead's homespun evolution is given its proper context, while project producer David Lemieux, the band's official archivist, rightly observes the album captures "the Dead sound that would largely define the next couple of years . . . authentically honest music."

Following the numerous production battles and other challenges the Dead faced while cutting previous studio efforts, enlisting their own live engineers Rob Matthews and Betty Cantor to join them at Pacific High Recording Studio in San Francisco was a wise move indeed, instantly giving Workingman's eight taut but loose songs the proper bed needed for the requisite authenticity. "Please don't dominate the rap, Jack / If you've got nothing new to say," guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia implores at the outset of the ragtag "New Speedway Boogie," and it's as good a manifesto as any for how the Dead planned to enter the post-'60s world in a new, albeit more traditional, way.


The acoustic "Uncle John's Band" opens the floor with a whiff of bluegrass, full harmonies, and clever rolling percussion from Hart and drumming partner Bill Kreutzmann. "High Time" serves as a smoky pedal-steel showcase for Garcia, while "Dire Wolf," whose lyrical base sprang from Hunter watching Basil Rathbone wholly embody Sherlock Holmes in 1939's Hound of the Baskervilles, gave even more credence to the Dead's country bonafides.

"Easy Wind," a vocal platform for keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, embodies the workingman vibe to a T. It also features Pigpen's sweet harmonica break in the left channel, followed by Garcia's electric guitar solo first complementing, then countering it in the right before crossing channels to the left. The hard-chugging, album-ending "Casey Jones" serves as a cautionary tale with both historical and modern contexts in mind. (Naturally, Garcia's admonishment to "watch your speed" held more than one meaning behind it.)


Discs 2 and 3 share a rich pageant of Dead live offerings, many of which would soon enough become concert staples. Though Hart did not appear at this show for various reasons, Kreutzmann more than handily carries the backbeat load. A cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" benefits from a heartfelt lead vocal turn from Bob Weir, perhaps tinged with additional melancholy due to the October 1970 passing of Janis Joplin, whose hit version of the song was released posthumously and reached No. 1 just a month after this show took place. "Ripple" gets a spirited, harmonic do-over after a false start, while "China Cat Sunflower" segues into "I Know You Rider" in that ramble-tamble way Dead fans love to no end.

The Grateful Dead's long strange trip would continue onward with (and be properly namechecked on) November 1970's American Beauty, which was recorded on the heels of Workingman's Dead and is surely next on their 50th anniversary multidisc docket. Until then, the backporch charms of the Workingman's Dead 3 CD set will more than drive the train that tells you just how the song goes.

Label: Warner Records/Grateful Dead/Rhino
Audio Format: 16-bit/44.1kHz PCM Stereo
Length: 3:07:32
Number of Tracks: 32 on 3 CDs
Producers: Rob Matthews, Betty Cantor (original album); Grateful Dead (original album and live material); David Lemieux (deluxe edition)
Engineers: Alembic (original album); Rob Matthews, Betty Canton (original album and live recordings); David Glasser (mastering, live recordings); Jeffrey Norman (mixing, live recordings)

Chris Teeh's picture

While my magazine subscription fell by the wayside after the sale (I still miss it), the one thing I always loved about the magazine/site is the audio and video reviews! Not necessarily the reviews themselves, but WHAT you review!

Like this review - you mention items that I have never heard of and didn't know that they deserved a box set! While most of the groups and movies you reviewed I had never heard of, they sounded intriguing enough for me to investigate. I cannot say that the music groups changed my biased views, but the movies (recent too) that I had not known about became some good watches!

So I thank this site for that. I still don't know what's so great about The grateful Dead...

Al Griffin's picture
We're happy our reviews help you to discover interesting things. Cheers.