Saturday, January 2, 2021

Grateful Dead: “American Beauty: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (2020) CD Review

In a single year, that year being 1970, the Grateful Dead recorded two masterpieces – Workingman’s Dead and, my absolute favorite album of all time, American Beauty. Last year, fiftieth anniversary editions of both albums were released, each of them lovingly remastered and including, as bonus material, a complete live show from 1971. I’ve listened to American Beauty countless times in my life, and this remastered edition sounds better than ever.

Disc One: The Album

American Beauty opens with “Box Of Rain,” a beautiful and personal song about life and death, written by Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter, when Phil’s father was at the end of his life. It contains some of the best lyrics of anything in the Dead’s repertoire, and is one of very few songs that Phil sang lead on. And sure, his voice was never as strong as Jerry’s or Bob’s, but he sounds just exactly perfect here. And I can’t help but be affected by this song every time I hear it. This song was the encore at my very first Grateful Dead show. “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” Indeed. “Box Of Rain” is followed by that delightful folk song, “Friend Of The Devil.” By the time I saw the Dead in the 1980s, this song had been slowed considerably, but here we have that early, rather peppy rendition, featuring David Grisman on mandolin, which certainly adds a lot to its cheerful sound. This song gets in my head every time I am out late and wondering if I’ll get any sleep that night. “Sugar Magnolia” is cited by many Deadheads as an early favorite, the song that initially got them into the band. And it’s easy to see why. The song has tremendous appeal. It’s simply a lot of fun, and in concert it was usually played with a ton of energy. This song opened the second set at my first show, where the “Sunshine Daydream” section was separated from the main body and played at the end of the set. “Operator” is the only Pigpen song on the album, and it is about a certain longing, a loneliness, a man who can’t even recall the number to reach the person he’s missing, and is getting no help in that endeavor. Yet, this one too has something of a cheerful sound, and before its conclusion it features some good harmonica work by Pigpen. The first side of the album (I originally had this on cassette) ends with one of those wonderful slow Garcia numbers, “Candyman,” featuring a fantastic and passionate vocal performance, as well as some beautiful harmonies, and some good work by Jerry Garcia on pedal steel. I wish he’d played that instrument more often.

As good as the first side is, the second side of this album is even better. It begins with my absolute favorite song, “Ripple,” which has, in my opinion, the best set of lyrics Robert Hunter ever wrote. It’s difficult to pick just a few lines to quote here, but I suppose these will suffice: “There is a road, no simple highway/Between the dawn and the dark of night/And if you go, no one may follow/That path is for your steps alone.” Plus, this track features more wonderful work by David Grisman on mandolin. It still makes me sad that I never got the chance to see Jerry perform this song live. “Ripple” is followed by another gorgeous and moving song, “Brokedown Palace,” one I did see the Dead play several times. It was always my favorite choice of encores, with the lines, “Going home, going home/By the waterside I will rest my bones/Listen to the river sing sweet songs/To rock my soul,” and leaving us feeling relaxed and hopeful. “Fare you well, fare you well/I love you more than words can tell.” “Till The Morning Comes” is one I sometimes forget about, probably because the Dead didn’t play it very much, but it was one of my favorites when I first dug into this album in my early teens, and it makes me happy whenever I hear it. I don’t know why the Dead dropped this one from rotation so quickly. “Let your tracks be lost in the dark and snow.” “Attics Of My Life” has stunningly beautiful vocal work, and contains yet another stellar set of lyrics from Robert Hunter. I was so happy when the Grateful Dead started playing this song again at the end of the 1980s, and was thrilled each time I saw them do it. “In the secret space of dreams, where I dreaming lay amazed/When the secrets all are told, and the petals all unfold/When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me.” The album concludes with another personal song that quickly became personal to all who heard it as well. “Truckin’” relates the troubles the band was suffering at the time, even including a reference to their bust in New Orleans. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Dead fan who wasn’t hassled at least once by the cops on the way to a show. But of course the lines we all shouted out together each night they played this song were “Sometimes the lights all shining on me/Other times I can barely see/Lately it occurs to me/What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Disc Two: 2-18-71 Set I

As with the fiftieth anniversary edition of Workingman’s Dead, the fiftieth anniversary edition of American Beauty contains a show from the band’s 1971 run at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. The second disc of this three-disc set contains the complete first set from the first show of that run, which took place on February 18th. This show is important for a couple of reasons. During it, the Dead introduced five new songs, including “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat.” And this was Mickey Hart’s last show for a while. His dad had embezzled the band’s money, and that, understandably, weighed heavily on him. So after this show he took off to sort himself out, not returning to the band until October of 1974, at the show that was then billed as “The Last One.”

This show opens with one of the new songs, “Bertha,” which almost immediately became a favorite of fans. It is a fun song to dance to, which is part of its appeal, but also lines like “Test me, test me, test me/Why don’t you arrest me” speak to those of us who were somewhat routinely hassled by the police. It was always a great choice to kick off a show. This version might feel a bit messy, but the passion is there. And interestingly, the song continues after that “Anymore, anymore, anymore!” That’s followed by “Truckin’,” the energy remaining high. Yeah, the band came bursting out of the gate on this night. “Truckin’” is loose, yet fiery. For something of a beast, it is interesting how it ends kind of quietly. Things then get bluesy with a really good cover of “It Hurts Me Too,” with Pigpen on lead vocals. You can hear the crowd react appreciatively the moment he starts singing. In addition to a heartfelt vocal performance, he delivers some good work on harmonica. After that, and after a bit of tuning and a joke about the tuning, the band introduces two more new songs, the first being Jerry Garcia’s “Loser.” All he’s asking for in this version is “one gold dollar,” not ten, as in later versions. This is an excellent rendition. What a great way to introduce the audience to this song. Bob Weir says they’re going to try another new song, and they play “Greatest Story Ever Told,” and here the opening line is “Moses come riding up on a guitar,” not “quasar,” as he would later sing. Without a pause, the band then rips into an energetic “Johnny B. Goode.” That’s followed by a rather sweet rendition of “Mama Tried.” Then Pigpen takes over, delivering a good rendition of “Hard To Handle,” featuring the first real jamming of the show. Some tuning follows. Then the band launches into “Dark Star.” Check out the audience’s reaction when the guys start this first set “Dark Star.” Yeah, I would have been overjoyed too. The jam begins in a mellow place, featuring some cool percussion that would be dispensed with in later versions. And soon things build. Though this was 1971, this rendition has all the flavor and style of the earliest versions. And, oddly, Jerry sings “Dark star flashes” instead of “crashes.” After that first verse, things get weird, seeming to dissolve and fragment, and then we suddenly find ourselves in “Wharf Rat.” What a crazy way to introduce this song. The crowd applauds when it begins, as if they’re recognizing it, but this was the first time the band ever played it.  Jerry sings “down by the docks of the river” instead of “docks of the city.” This is one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, and it’s so good to revisit how it began. “Wharf Rat” leads back into “Dark Star,” and the jam at the beginning is truly beautiful, something you don’t always get with a “Dark Star.” Jerry’s guitar work has a sort of angelic quality, making this my favorite part of the first set. Soon after the second verse, the band goes into “Me And My Uncle,” which wraps up the first set and the second disc.

Disc Three: 2-18-71 Set II

The third disc contains the complete second set from February 18, 1971. There is some banter at the beginning about the lights, with the band even asking the audience for its opinion on whether a certain light should be left on. Then the band launches into “Casey Jones,” clearly delighting the crowd, and getting the second set off to an excellent start. That’s followed by “Playing In The Band,” the final new song of the evening. It feels just a bit slow, and of course isn’t yet that great vehicle for jamming that it would soon become, but is still good, and the seed is certainly there. Then it sounds like they’re going to go into “Bird Song” for a moment, but instead choose to do a cover of “Me And Bobby McGee.” There is an air of melancholy in this version, which works so well. It’s a moving rendition. (By the way, “Bird Song” would be introduced at the next show, on February 19th.) Jerry follows that with a sweet rendition of “Candyman,” featuring some nice vocal work. Some stage banter about the monitors follows, and then the band goes into “Big Boss Man,” with Pigpen on lead vocals and blowing that harmonica. There is a good groove, but it’s that harmonica that stands out. Folks shout out some requests, and the band, as usual, ignores them and goes into “Sugar Magnolia.” This “Sugar Magnolia” moves quickly and has the energy of a set closer. It is interesting to find this in the middle of a set. They take a moment to figure out what to play next, and then please everyone by choosing “St. Stephen.” It sounds like something pops during the line “One man gathers what another man spills.” A rim shot? This is a totally enjoyable rendition, with special energy toward the end. That leads straight into an explosive and exciting “Not Fade Away,” which gives way to “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” that song building in energy between the verses and then growing gloriously in power toward the end before going back into “Not Fade Away” for a wild finish. Oh man, listen to that howling, it is bloody great. They then wrap up the show with “Uncle John’s Band,” a wonderful conclusion to an excellent night.

CD Track List

Disc 1

  1. Box Of Rain
  2. Friend Of The Devil
  3. Sugar Magnolia
  4. Operator
  5. Candyman
  6. Ripple
  7. Brokedown Palace
  8. Till The Morning Comes
  9. Attics Of My Life
  10. Truckin’

Disc 2

  1. Bertha
  2. Truckin’
  3. Hurts Me Too
  4. Loser
  5. Greatest Story Ever Told >
  6. Johnny B. Goode
  7. Mama Tried
  8. Hard To Handle
  9. Dark Star >
  10. Wharf Rat >
  11. Dark Star >
  12. Me And My Uncle

Disc 3

  1. Casey Jones
  2. Playing In The Band
  3. Me And Bobby McGee
  4. Candyman
  5. Big Boss Man
  6. Sugar Magnolia
  7. St. Stephen >
  8. Not Fade Away >
  9. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad >
  10. Not Fade Away >
  11. Uncle John’s Band

American Beauty: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition was released in early November of 2020. My copy arrived on November 6th.

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