The Grateful Dead delivered Workingman’s Dad unto this world on June 14, 1970. San Francisco’s grooviest had already ruled from the Summer of Love onward as cosmic magicians in the realm of live music and scored gold status with their ’69 release Aoxomoxoa when the planets (or whatever) aligned and the Dead issued one of the crucial studio-recorded milestones of the FM rock radio era.
The Dead are the most properly obsessed-over live act in rock history and, as such, they wrought forth an entire phenomenon of other artists who can pack stadiums worldwide in concert while their studio albums, by and large, are sort of beside the point.
In honor of Workingman’s Dead turning 45, let’s look back at ten non-live classic LPs by rockers best known for their live work.
four – Blues Traveler (1994)
Emerging from the early-’90s jam band scene centered on the New York City club Wetlands Preserve that also produced the Spin Doctors and hosted Phish, Gov’t Mule, and countless others, Blues Traveler scored a couple of unlikely smashes smack in the midst of the alt-rock Lollapalooza Decade.
After a trio of flop albums, four begat “Hook” and “Run-Around,” a couple of inescapable radio monsters bolstered by clever music videos that simultaneously camouflaged and played up the, let us say, atypical rock star appearance of the band, in particular whole lotta frontman John Popper.
Freeze Frame – J. Geils Band (1981)
Hailed, still, as the greatest instant party group of all time, the J. Geils Band had been slaying revelers in concert, particularly in college towns, from 1967 onward when they scored their first rock radio hit with the live track, “I Do.”
The group built off that momentum and incorporated arena-rock riffs and new wave aesthetics two years later on their breakthrough LP, Love Stinks. That, in turn, set up 1981’s Freeze Frame, an absolute atomic warhead of ’80s rock whose two #1 singles, “Centerfold” and the title track, remain in heavy rotation throughout humanity’s collective consciousness.
Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike – Gogol Bordello (2005)
“Start Wearing Purple”
Maniacally energetic “Gypsy punk” ensemble Gogol Bordello exploded out of New York City at the turn of the century and have bedazzled the entire planet with wild, polyrhythmic, multi-instrumental stage shows that, musically, emerge up from the members’ Easter European ethnic roots.
The group’s fourth album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, compressed and dispensed Gogol Bordello’s sound, philosophy, and overall bedlam as perfectly as any studio recording could. It also launched the near-hit, “Start Wearing Purple” and solidified the identity of the group who have kept their traveling circus on the road ever since.
Tin Cans & Car Tires – moe. (1998)
“Stranger Than Fiction”
The vast musical stratosphere that jam greats moe. explore live gets remarkably documented on the group’s second LP, Tin Cans & Car Tires. After initially ripping into the hard-and-heavy “Stranger Than Fiction,” the album goes soulful with Nebraska, plays with psychedelic pop, on “Hi & Lo,” and travels forth wherever the jam takes them on “Plane Crash.” Those are just three of Tin Can’s dozen delectable numbers, each of which add up to a classic collection that fans cherish. Just listen to what happens when moe. bust out a slice of Tin Cans in concert.
Changes in Latitudes Changes in Attitudes – Jimmy Buffett (1977)
As rock’s laid-back poet laureate of the tropical getaway, Jimmy Buffett’s warm weather performances provide a regular ritual for millions worldwide. As Buffett himself famously joked by naming his greatest hits collection Song(s) You Know by Heart, sun fan dedication and continual conversion arises directly and specifically from track one on side two of his 1977 album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. That would be “Margaritaville.”
In support of CIL, CIA, Buffett opened for the Eagles on their Hotel California tour As such Jimmy and his Coral Reefer Band played nightly to previously unimaginable audiences size-wise, winning over crowd after crowd. He also had a top-notch studio album for all those concertgoers to pick up after each show. Buffett’s been a live music icon ever since.
At Dawn – My Morning Jacket (2001)
After forming in 1998 within Louisville, Kentucky’s punk scene (which, yes, is surprising), My Morning Jacket attracted followers from every musical genre’s “scene,” everywhere they performed live.
MMJ’s 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, deftly conveys the early version of the group’s light touch, acoustic power, and haunting, almost spooky fluency in their freak folk and alt-country backgrounds. The group’s 2001 follow-up, At Dawn, is all that and more: a richer realization of MMJ’s sonic balm gorgeously sprawled out over fourteen tracks that run a luminous 74 minutes.
Space Wrangler – Widespread Panic (1988)
Jam Masters rising up out of the fertile musical soil of Athens, Georgia, Widespread Panic hit studio paydirt with their initial recorded effort, Space Wrangler.
A powder keg of southern rock, slide-guitar blues, deep funk, and prog exploration, Space Wrangler announced that Widespread Panic was for real and what have since become multiple generations of admirers continue to heed the group’s heavy-boogie call.
Frampton’s Camel – Peter Frampton (1972)
“Do You Feel Like We Do”
Peter Frampton initially achieved stardom first in the mid-’60s group the Heard as then as the lead axe-slinger in proto-metal British blues-rock greats Humble Pie. Flying solo in the early ’70s, Frampton hit the road hard and stunned concertgoers with his first-class guitar wizardry and unbeatable stage presence. Wind of Change, his first solo LP, dropped in 1972 and wielded no hits, but it enabled Frampton to get out in front of crowds where he never failed to deliver his magic.
Four years and exactly than many more records later, Peter Frampton finally (albeit temporarily) erupted as the hugest rock star on the planet via his 1976 monster, Frampton Comes Alive. As with Kiss, whose Alive!album broke them a year earlier; the millions who scooped up FCA then went back and checked out Frampton’s previous releases.
Frampton’s Camel, named for the band with which Peter toured, is a rock-solid knockout of nine songs that prompted those fans to pack the arenas in San Francisco, Long Island, and upstate New York where Frampton Comes Alive was recorded. It even ends with what would become, and remains, Peter’s showstopper, “Do You Feel Like We Do.”
Billy Breathes – Phish (1996)
Akin Blues Traveler’s previously mentioned four, Billy Breathes by Phish was the right studio album by the right jam icons for 1996’s alt-rock moment. The record dynamically connected to a mammoth mainstream rock audience that was eager to hear new sounds and soak up new, perhaps chemically heightened atmospheres in which they could get on their individual and collective freaks. Billy Breathes provided the ideal point-of-entry.
Across the album’s fourteen tracks, super-producer Steve Lilywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel) translates Phish’s way-out sound and boundless scope to a pop-friendly milieu, creating a perfectly of-its-moment package that in no way violates the group’s standards or ethos, from the radio-ready near-hit “Free” to the nostril-intense close-up of bassist Mike Gordon on the album’s cover.
Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty – Grateful Dead (1970)
The immeasurable power and purpose of the Grateful Dead in 1970 proved to be so potent and prolific that the band, never darlings of the studio to begin with, produced not one but two cornerstone classic rock LPs. Each collection contains intricately crafted, brilliantly composed songwriting demonstrations that, of course, exploded and expanded in infinite directions once the group busted them out live. As a result, there’s no way we could pick just one to top the list.
Workingman’s Dead crystallizes the band in an atypical moment of laser focus. They’d been arrested in New Orleans on a drug rap and their manager Lenny Hart, drummer Mickey’s father, had looted the group’s finances.
Committed to pumping out a solid album in three weeks’ time, Jerry Garcia noted that their punch-the-clock dedication was resulting in “the Workingman’s Dead version of the group.” Hence, the album’s title. Garcia also proclaimed that working on the record “in the midst of all this adverse stuff happening, it was definitely an upper.”
“Uncle John’s Band” was the album opener and the first single, followed by “Casey Jones”. Neither charted but both stand as two of the Dead’s most familiar anthems, active remaining staples of rock radio.
Shortly after issuing Workingman’s Dead, the band landed back in the studio and labored even more intensely on American Beauty. Influenced by the gorgeous harmonies of their friends Crosby, Stills, and inspired by how listeners and critics reacted to Workingman’s Dead, the group knocked it out of the jam-packed-with-whirling-dancers park again.
“Truckin’,” the Dead’s single best-known song, closes American Beauty. Elsewhere, the album’s tracks boast band’s other most familiar musical forays, including “Box of Rain,” “Ripple,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Friend of the Devil.”
American Beauty hit record stores in November 1, 1970, just five months after Workingman’s Dead. As declared in the 1999 Captain Trips biography, Garcia: An American Life, “If you liked rock-and-roll in 1970, but didn’t like the Grateful Dead, you were out of luck, because they were inescapable that summer and fall.”
Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty have remained inescapable over the 45 years that have ensued since then—in the best possible sense. In addition to fueling the Dead’s unparalleled impact as a live outfit, the albums have never stopped inspiring and motivating adventurous rock-and-rollers to follow their muse beyond any limits of where they think music—and life itself—can take them… or anyone.