Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Grateful Dead - American Beauty (1970)

It makes sense that the Grateful Dead were the only San Francisco band to survive the late-sixties acid-rock scene.  The Dead, unlike other Frisco bands, were rooted in Americana music, which allowed them to transcend the limits of the electronic and trippy experimentation that typified psychedelia.  Also, they never bought into the idea that they were changing the world.  The late Jerry Garcia admitted as much, telling Rolling Stone that they were always drawn to the spiritual side of the music.  This, more than anything else, explains their long, exploratory jams, both in concert and in the studio; the Dead were always in search of that perfect moment of inner fulfilment.
The result was some spellbinding music that mesmerized listeners, most of it keyed around Garcia's inventive guitar, the subtle bass of Phil Lesh, and the moody percussion of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.  The sounds the Dead produced could be as cosmically inviting as a multicolored mural, though the length of their free-form jams could occasionally test the patience of some listeners; it was precisely these indulgences that won them as many detractors as fans.  (The veteran rock critic Dave Marsh made a sideline out of vilifying them.)  But more often than not the Dead were in sync with their audiences.
Of course, if you're going to play a song and extend it for fifteen minutes or longer to find an inner sense of self, you need some solidly structured material to start with, and in 1970 the Grateful Dead produced not one but two albums of such material.  I suppose Workingman's Dead, with some rather biting songs and slyly crisp music, is considered the classic, but I keep coming back to American Beauty for its rich melodies, pensive lyrics, and consistent playing throughout.  It's appropriate that the Grateful Dead's fifth studio album is named for a rose, because it's just as intricate and complex, with some thorny realities underneath its beautiful surface.  (Look closely at the font on the cover; the title can also by read as American Reality.)
The songs on American Beauty express hope in sorrow, from the gorgeous "Box Of Rain" (a song for Lesh's dying father), which opens side one, to the mystical "Ripple," which opens side two, with its shimmering imagery of water blessed by a higher power.  Lyricist Robert Hunter's pictures of a more spiritual world are complemented wonderfully by Garcia's expressive and economical guitar, and "Ripple" has the added delicacies of David Grisman's mandolin.  The group really comes together on "Brokedown Palace," a song about finding peace, with its moody arrangements and the band's precise harmonies.  But even as the Dead celebrate life - "Sugar Magnolia" is easily one of the most sumptuous country-rock ballads ever recorded - they confront the dangers of the real world.  "Friend Of the Devil" is the tale of outlaw on the run, and you can almost feel the desert heat through Garcia's weary voice and Lesh's undertow of a bass line as the narrator escapes the sheriff through the Utah hills, with the devil himself as ally and enemy.  "Candyman" is a man's tale of dependency and deceit that isn't going to end well for the women and gamblers who deal with him.  (Watch out, Mr. Benson!)
"Truckin'," American Beauty's shuffling final number, is the Dead's signature song, and justly so; its truck driver metaphors of hard living on the road, which the guitars of Garcia and Bob Weir and the organ of the late Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan make sound deceptively fun, sums up the group's legendary concert tours.  The Dead were prepared for a longer, stranger trip beyond American Beauty, hoping to find that lost chord in their travels.
They never did, of course, but the Dead's search for spiritual contentment - paralleling that of their fans - was a fascinating journey that, until Garcia's death in 1995, yielded some interesting jams, produced a unique way of appreciating the healing powers of music, and kept band and Deadhead alike busy for a long, long time. 

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