Grateful Dead – ‘American Beauty’ album review


Grateful Dead – ‘American Beauty’

If you’re listening to the Grateful Dead just through their studio albums, you’re missing the entire point. That’s the argument that many a Deadhead would make. For 30 years, America’s preeminent psychedelic rock band made their name on the power of their live shows. From the hard-hitting ‘Primal Dead’ era of the 1960s to the turn-on-a-dime jazz rock band of the 1970s to the arena-rocking power unit of the 1980s and beyond, the Dead could only truly be understood when they took the stage.

While the explosiveness of their performances and the variety of their live shows were the band’s biggest assets, that doesn’t mean that they always failed to translate the magic to the confines of the recording studio. 1968’s Anthem of the Sun was a hybrid studio and live record, featuring some of the most densely psychedelic music ever put to tape. Their first album, 1967’s The Grateful Dead, is a slight but enjoyable garage rock LP. After exploring the outer reaches of experimentation with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the Dead found themselves heavily in debt and unsatisfied with their output.

The answer was to do a hard reset. The band had been incorporating acoustic sets into their 1970 performances, harkening back to their days as a jug band. Seeing that their previous studio albums didn’t sell and burned a whole bunch of cash along the way, it was decided that the band would rehearse simpler acoustic material and record it quickly. The result was Workingman’s Dead, a surprise hit that helped put them in the good graces of their put-upon record company, Warner Brothers.

The Dead was originally supposed to join the Medicine Ball Caravan tour to support the album, but after pulling out, they decided to re-enter the studio and make another album. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter had hit a new stride as a songwriting team, producing ethereal acoustic songs that meditated on everything from death to nature to folklore and even their own self-mythology. Across just two months, the Dead produced what would be their best studio album, American Beauty.

The record starts off in an unusual way: Phil Lesh steps to the microphone to sing ‘Box of Rain’. Composed by Lesh with lyrics written by Hunter, the oblique story was inspired by Lesh’s father dying of cancer during the album’s production. Lesh was the essential high tenor in the band’s newly-discovered three-part harmonies, but his voice was notoriously wayward as a lead instrument. On the studio version of ‘Box of Rain’, however, he’s immaculate and pitch-perfect, even providing his own three-part stack on the line, “what do you want me to do?”

If ‘Box of Rain’ sounds a bit strange, that’s because a modified lineup of the Dead is performing it. Lesh is on acoustic guitar instead of bass, with New Riders of the Purple Sage bassist Dave Torbert taking his place. Lesh didn’t want Garcia’s signature lead guitar on the track, so Garcia plays piano instead. Fellow New Rider David Nelson provides the lead guitar instead. Bill Kreutzmann is the only drummer on the track, with Mickey Hart leading a group in handclaps and providing tambourine accompaniment. Neither Bob Weir nor Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan appears on the basic track of ‘Box of Rain’.

American Beauty would be a record full of guests and strange lineups. Other than his sole self-written contribution to the Dead canon, ‘Operator’, Pigpen doesn’t appear anywhere on the album. Hart is also absent from most of the LP, still reeling from the betrayal that his father, former manager Lenny Hart, pulled on the band a few months earlier by absconding with most of the band’s money. Despite the apparent disjointed nature, everything about American Beauty works perfectly in harmony. Each song was given exactly what it needed and was stripped of what it didn’t.

That can be heard perfectly on ‘Friend of the Devil’. Taking the same narrative as old-time folk songs, Hunter spins a tale of nefarious deals and sinners on the run from both the police and Lucifer himself. Garcia is the only person that can make a scumbag like this sound relatable, and his honey-soaked voice rings out with pure joy. He even dips into his previous history as a bluegrass player for his acoustic guitar lines. Bumping up against the duelling acoustic guitars is David Grisman’s mandolin, which would be an essential musical element to the album’s distinct sound.

‘Friend of the Devil’ was originally meant to be a New Riders of the Purple Sage song – given that Hunter was briefly the band’s bass player – and singer/guitarist John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson gets a songwriting credit. But once Garcia heard it, he stole it for the Dead. The band’s frenetic and fast-paced take on ‘Friend of the Devil’ wouldn’t last long: most fans heard the song after it had transformed into a languid ballad in the live setting.

Bobby Weir then steps up with one of his most iconic songs, ‘Sugar Magnolia’. Ostensibly a love song to his then paramour Frankie Weir, Weir would strip the track of its immaculate harmonies and supercharge it as a rock and roll rave-up that ended a fair number of second sets throughout the Dead’s career. ‘Sugar Magnolia’ would also be a pivotal line of demarcation in regard to Weir’s working relationship with Hunter. Weir’s insistence on adding the line “jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive” rankled Hunter, as did Weir’s frequent lyrical flubs on ‘Truckin’. By the time Weir massively edited ‘One More Saturday Night’, Hunter ended their collaboration and gave the role of Weir’s lyricist to John Perry Barlow.

Garcia once described working in the studio as akin to building a ship in a bottle. Nowhere is that more obvious than on ‘Sugar Magnolia’. Over the years, the ‘Sunshine Daydream’ coda would take on a life of its own, often being listed as its own song on setlists and being delayed for entire sets or occasionally weeks at a time before being played. The studio version of ‘Sugar Magnolia’ is nothing like that: it’s light, compact, and perfectly polished.

(Credit: Alamy)

Pigpen had been put through the wringer by 1970. He had already been sent to the hospital (not his first or last trip) and was frequently replaced as the band’s keyboardist, both live and in the studio. The same would hold true for American Beauty, with keyboardists Ned Lagin and Howard Wales providing most of the piano and organ on the album. Pigpen’s only real contribution is ‘Operator’, a shuffling country track that became a hidden gem among his canon of classic songs.

Side one closes out with ‘Candyman’, the country-soaked ballad that once again brings the setting back to Hunter’s cracked world of Americana. Garcia’s pedal steel solo, filtered through a Leslie speaker, remains one of his best. The tight harmonies that Lesh, Weir, and Garcia strained to get right rarely sounded better than they did on the close-clustered tones that they produce in ‘Candyman’. With an undercurrent of violent menace, ‘Candyman’ is the perfect blend of malevolence and beauty, a mix that the Grateful Dead became experts at producing.

Side two, meanwhile, kicks off with the campfire singalong strains of ‘Ripple’. Composed on the same day that he wrote the lyrics to ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘To Lay Me Down’, Hunter’s connection with nature as a source of revitalisation, rebirth, and renewal is intoxicating. ‘Ripple’ could very well be the simplest song that the Grateful Dead ever performed, but that directness meant that it could resonate with just about everyone who came into contact with it.

Since its release, ‘Ripple’ has taken on a strangely mythical afterlife. The Dead rarely played it live, but that didn’t stop it from becoming an anthem to scores of people buying into the alternative lifestyle that the Dead were selling. The Grateful Dead didn’t have “hits” – instead, their songs became classics through the tried-and-true method of folk music. Aspiring guitarists would play it for friends. Dying fans would request it as their last song. ‘Ripple’ almost immediately became more than just a Grateful Dead song, and the band’s decision not to highlight it or overplay it only added to that unique status.

As the final notes of ‘Ripple’ fade off, ‘Brokedown Palace’ takes over as the perfect follow-up. More directly about death, ‘Brokedown Palace’ is basically a gospel song filtered through the Dead’s sonic palate. Hunter’s naked pleas and bittersweet sendoffs were far more direct than he had normally allowed himself to be. The Dead’s transition from acid-soaked freaks to genuinely gifted singers and musicians was complete with ‘Brokedown Palace’, and Garcia continued to favour it as one of his signature ballads.

The only anomaly on American Beauty is ‘Till the Morning Comes’. A strangely chauvinistic song, ‘Till the Morning Comes’ never found a place in the band’s live sets, a fate worse than death for a Grateful Dead track. With only five live performances, all in 1970, the track is the forgotten child of American Beauty. Like the rest of the album, it’s remarkably recorded and highly catchy. If you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, ‘Till the Morning Comes’ doesn’t halt the momentum of the album in any way.

Another gospel-tinged ballad comes next in the form of ‘Attics of My Life’. Entirely sung in three-part harmony, the track shows the Dead finally becoming comfortable in the studio. That being said, ‘Attics of My Life’ would occasionally be trotted out in live shows, mostly being played in the 1990s. The song’s dependence on note-perfect harmonies didn’t always make it a great live song, but the elegance of Hunter’s impressionistic lyrics carried the track into the realms of the band’s best material.

To close out American Beauty, the Grateful Dead bust out their signature self-referential track ‘Truckin’. Home to perhaps Hunter’s most famous lyric (“what a long strange trip it’s been”), ‘Truckin’ took its inspiration from the band’s 1970 drug bust in New Orleans. A shuffling blues rock number, ‘Truckin’ was the closest thing that the Dead had to a hit during their first 15 years. The different city shoutouts made it an easy win as the Dead toured around America, and by 1972, the song had developed a jam that suited the band’s live inclinations.

‘Truckin’ is a song that remains reliant on group collaboration: the group harmonies fit together perfectly, with each singer contributing a different element to the song’s composition. Garcia’s lead guitar stings and swings along with Kreutzmann’s drums, but Lesh’s bass provides the song’s momentum and forward movement. Weir’s mile-a-minute lead vocal is just playful enough to get on board. Even Pigpen would contribute heavily to the song’s jam in his final year with the band, playing off the vibrant jazz lines of pianist Keith Godchaux (neither appeared on the studio version of ‘Truckin’: the organ part was performed by Howard Wales).

By the time the final notes of ‘Truckin’ disappear into the ether, it becomes clear that American Beauty has eclipsed even Workingman’s Dead. Whereas Workingman’s Dead had sepia-toned dust and darkness lurking around its corners, American Beauty is a technicolour dream filled with vibrancy, joy, and hope. Death is treated like a welcomed friend. Deals with the devil and drug busts come across as rollicking romps. There’s none of the tortured hardship or frequent hassles that were floating around the band at the time. The world outside was turbulent, but ironically, the one band that was most averse to the recording studio found solace inside its walls.

Even after all these years, American Beauty has yet to lose any of its lustre. The production remains timeless, and the material is top-shelf. Everyone in the Grateful Dead was hitting their stride, so much so that they were able to record two classic albums in 1970. American Beauty remains the superior of the two (if only by a slim margin) because of the palpable jubilation and ecstasy that radiates through its songs. The Grateful Dead might have been the definition of a live band, but you can’t see the whole story of the band without American Beauty, a triumph of studio mastery, elegant songwriting, musical chemistry, and pure happiness.

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