For some reason I came late to the Grateful Dead. A perceptive workmate introduced me to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty in the mid-70s, and loaned me their then latest release, which subsequently became a lifelong favourite.
The eight songs here all feature taut songwriting and, in contrast with the legendarily loose nature of the band's live shows, gratifyingly tight performances. All would lend themselves to funky stretchout treatment on stage, yet benefitted from the distillation necessary to fit them into a studio collection. Jerry Garcia still finds space to weave his magical, sparkling lines among the verses, and the effortless tightness of the three-man rhythm section (only Bill Kreutzmann on drums here) surmounts the oft-shifting rhythms. Keith Godchaux provides a new versatility on keys - synth, harpsichord and acoustic piano as well as trademark organ - and his wife Donna gives a new soprano edge to the harmonies so saccharine-sweet on American Beauty.
From the opening jaunty shuffle "U.S. Blues", which captured hilariously the cynical yet defensive national attitude following Watergate, to the brooding Dylanesque closer "Ship Of Fools", there really are no weak tracks here. For me the standouts include Garcia and Hunter's irresitably funky "Loose Lucy" which gallops along on one of Captain Trips's finest riffs, and Bob Weir's highly enjoyable reinvention of the old Motown standard "Money" as "Money Money", in which the avarice is transferred to his unidentified lady friend and the original riff neatly subsumed into a new rolling chord sequence and broken time signature. Phil Lesh finally attains composer status with the hazy, summery "Unbroken Chain" and the lilting "Pride Of Cucamonga" on which guest pedal steelist, Cactus's John McFee, provides tremendous accompaniment to Lesh's earnest vocal. The most gifted singer in the band is of course Garcia, and my personal favourite is the rollicking "Scarlet Begonias" which forefronts the Captain's delightful plaintive tenor either side of a concise, exemplary Garcia solo. Oh, yes, and the album title refers to the nickname of an itinerants' hostel around the corner from the studio.
This album could be the Dead's best kept secret. Go discover.