After slow start, Grateful Dead ramped it up with pair of good albums in 1970
“Come hear Uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.”
— “Uncle John’s Band” from “Workingman’s Dead” by the Grateful Dead. Written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.
In 1970 the Grateful Dead released two albums, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” These two albums are two of the finest folk, roots rock, Americana recordings ever made by any band or individual artist. They are unquestionably the two best-selling records in their catalog. They are my two favorite records by the band.
These two records were the fourth and fifth studio records in their discography. That’s significant because their first three studio LPs did not sell well outside of the Bay Area and were not well-reviewed by critics. After their third LP, “Aoxomoxoa,” they were in debt to their label, Warner Brothers. Fortunately for the Grateful Dead, Warner Brothers was still staffed and run mostly by music fans, not accountants — music fans who would go to the band’s live shows and see their potential due to the strength of those shows. Many of those shows were free shows performed in and around San Francisco.
“Live Dead,” released in late 1969, was the recording that put the Grateful Dead on the map outside of the Bay Area by giving folks a glimpse of what was to be the strength of the band: their live shows. The opening tracks of “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen” run for 30-plus minutes and offer a glimpse into the future of the band and its legacy as a live act.
“Workingman’s Dead” was the first of 1970’s releases and is a dark and somber reflection of the social turmoil of that time. Add to that the fact that all but two members of the group and their entourage had recently been arrested in New Orleans for drug possession. “Cumberland Blues,” “Black Peter,” and “Casey Jones” are three of the darker songs on the LP. “New Speedway Boogie” deals with the tragedy of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. “Uncle John’s Band” and “Dire Wolf” give the listener and the band some hope for the future. This LP showcased the band’s focus on their vocals with fantastic results.
“American Beauty,” the second LP released in 1970, shows the band improving the psychedelic/country/folk sound introduced on the previous recording. Where “Workingman’s Dead” was mostly dark and troubled, “American Beauty” is more relaxed, carefree and hopeful. The songs are incredibly well-written, perfectly arranged and sequenced. Musically, the playing as well as the songwriting could not be imagined to be any better. All 10 of the tracks on this record work, from the opening riffs of “Box Of Rain” to “Friend Of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Candyman,” “Ripple,” “Till the Morning Comes,” “Attics of My Life” and the irony of “Truckin,’” That last song became the band’s biggest hit and touched on their trouble in New Orleans.
“Sittin’ and starin’ out of the hotel window.
Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again.
I’d like to get some sleep before I travel.
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.
Busted down on Bourbon Street,
Set up like a bowlin’ pin.
Knocked down, it get’s to wearin’ thin.
They just won’t let you be, oh no.”