As a rock music fan I’ve always felt it necessary to reckon with the Grateful Dead. I wasn’t around at the very beginning, but in my lifetime they became a cultural institution. My time came in 1988. I was living in my father’s basement in the far-north suburbs of Detroit, trying to figure my way in the world. The figuring wasn’t going so well. One desperate Sunday evening, a syndicated rock radio program played Workingman’s Dead in its entirety, commercial free. I popped a tape into my boom box and recorded it (over an old comparative lit lecture). I wore that tape out and it inspired me to appropriate my father’s car and move to New York.
Workingman’s has remained an important record for me, so I was excited when Warner Brothers and Rhino Records announced a new reissue to honor its 50th anniversary. I expected to have a similar reaction to this reissue that Joe Smith, president of Warner Brothers records, had when the Dead presented him the recording in 1970. It was a revelation to Smith, who had been struggling to market the band. “Boom! Casey Jones,” he says in the Amazon Dead documentary Long Strange Trip. “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine. [snaps fingers] It was a home run.”
While it’s a landmark recording, I consider Workingman’s to be a reliable sonic specimen, if not one of particular note. I’ve had a nice, clean 70s vinyl pressing for a while, so I purchased the 3-disc HDCD version of the reissue, thinking these discs might lift a sonic veil. It hasn’t turned out to be a revelatory experience for me. That is not a criticism of the reissue; it’s a compliment to the issues we’ve been enjoying all these years. Damn good.
I’m listening through a vintage Marantz 2270 amplifier, fed by a 70s Dual 1219 turntable (with an Ortofon Omega cartridge) and a 90s Philips CD80 CD player. My critical listening has been through a pair of Sennheiser HD650 open-back headphones. To my ears, through this rig, my original vinyl is every bit the equal of this reissue. The vinyl required a couple dB boost to achieve the same volume as the CD, but that’s to be expected.
Still, the reissue has some nice qualities. The soundstage is wider, extending the breadth of the ensemble. “Dire Wolf” is a particular beneficiary of this broader feel. On my vinyl, the song sounds predominantly like acoustic guitar and vocals. The reissue gives the rest of the ensemble greater presence. There’s more going on here than I thought.
There also seems to be an expanded dynamic range that brings out more complexity in the delicate vocal harmonies the band achieved on these songs. The vocal parts are more distinct. Instead of Jerry and the backing vocals, it’s Jerry and all the different vocal parts. A striking example of the vocal definition comes early, in the a capella break in “Uncle John’s Band,” in which the backing ensemble is rendered like a collection of lead vocals.
It does seem that, in an effort to bring out more detail in this recording, reissue producer David Lemieux may have pushed some levels a bit too hard. “Black Peter” benefits from a more laid-back context on my vinyl. It feels like there’s more space allowing this fragile groove some room to catch its last breath. (The reissue version of this track sounds much better on our forthcoming headphone CD rig. More on that new product this fall.)
From the lenticular sleeve to the David Fricke essay in the liner notes, this is a very nice package. If you don’t have a copy of Workingman’s Dead, you should consider purchasing this reissue. But if you have a respectable copy on vinyl or CD you’re probably good.
You will, however, miss out on discs 2 & 3 which comprise the band’s complete set from their 21 February 1971 performance at Portchester, New York’s Capitol Theater. Previously unreleased, this show was part of their famous residency at Portchester. On stage is the Dead in their element, with Bob Weir’s vocal on “Me and Bobby McGee” a particular highlight.
Near the end of Amazon’s Long Strange Trip, Jerry Garcia offers the following, “Kerouac’s books opened up doors for me that put me in this life. I would like to do that for somebody else.” Workingman’s Dead has definitely been an On the Road inspiration for me. Thanks, Jerry. Happy birthday, man.
related post: Jamtology! Grateful Dead v Phish tourney results