I do like the Dead but they were always better as a studio outfit. When the country-rock pioneers were tuneful and concise, as a recording studio forced them to be, they were usually quite satisfying. Proof lies with the record that has always been considered their studio masterpiece, the stunning American Beauty.
This outstanding set of ten tunes gave birth to five FM radio staples, all of them worthy of airplay, all of them still heard today. The opener, "Box of Rain," with Phil Lesh on vocals, is a standout and it's followed by the best thing they ever laid down on tape, the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia/John Dawson story song, "Friend of the Devil." It's about an outlaw who makes a deal with the devil and featured David Grisman guesting on mandolin with the Dead for the very first time. The last of the three perfect ways to open an album is Bob Weir's "Sugar Magnolia." Side two on the original vinyl LP begins with the mighty fine "Ripple," again starring Garcia and Grisman.
The Dead closed the album out with "Truckin'," a rocker that became their biggest single for the next seventeen years. The shortened radio version only reached #64 on the Billboard pop singles chart even though the legendary San Franciscans were one of the most popular bands in the world at the time. It took them until 1987 to top it when "Touch of Gray" went to #9.
The rest of the classic record doesn't measure up to those five songs but that statement isn't a criticism of songs like "Brokedown Palace" and "Attics of My Life." On any other Grateful Dead album they would be considered standouts.
The elegant vocal harmonies, Grisman's mandolin, and Garcia's steel guitar push the disc firmly into the Americana category. Only a few other examples of the genre have scaled the artistic heights American Beauty reached. If you don't like these ten songs you just don't like country-rock or you have a problem with the whole hippie scene from which it came. If only the Grateful Dead's live sets were as focused as this album.
The first video below is not The Grateful Dead. Instead, it's a Garcia/Grisman performance of "Friend of the Devil" from David Letterman's show in 1993. It's followed by Bob Weir and John Mayer on The Late Show.