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Searching for the sound: Inside the studio with the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty celebrated its 50th anniversary this month. Released on November 1st, 1970, it’s the second of two albums — following Workingman’s Dead — that The Dead recorded and released that year. In fitting fashion, Rhino has packaged and released re-issues with sought-after live shows for both records as well as some extraordinarily rare outtakes and demos that offer us windows into the studio sessions that transformed their sound form jam band to rock heroes. 

These streaming-only studio sessions, dubbed ‘The Angel’s Share’, show the construction of a new sound for the band, one that would grow to define them. These sessions show a band moving past the psychedelic sounds and the blues-infused jams of their three previous efforts into a more grounded cohesive unit. It was a move which promoted the group out of their comfortable niche and into the mainstream, if only for a short while.  

“Our entire creative team has now solidified—band, lyricist, tech crew—and we’re working together in a harmonious atmosphere, undistracted by any psychedelic craziness. Gone are the designer hallucinogens; now there’s only the music, the tape, and us,” recalled Phil Lesh in his memoir, Searching for the Sound.

Both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were heavily influenced by the songwriting collaboration between Garcia and the band’s resident lyricist Robert Hunter. Garcia, who had just picked up a pedal steel guitar during a stopover in Colorado, was determined to incorporate it into the new songs that he and Hunter were writing and it would become a signature sound of the following records. 

With the addition of mandolinist David Grisman, Garcia’s pedal steel, and the fruitful collaboration with Hunter, The Dead started writing and recording songs that were lyrically and sonically rooted in folk and country. Garcia started calling this new sound — and era — the ‘Bakersfield Era’, a callback to a region in California that spawned speed country musicians like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

Thanks to recently discovered 16-track reels, fans can now experience the Grateful Dead harnessing this sound in the studio. For the first time ever, ‘The Angel’s Share’ gives fans access to studio outtakes of the band in their creative element. The collection is stretched out across two albums (one for each release) and includes five hours of unreleased studio outtakes recorded across two separate studios in San Francisco, California. For any Deadhead, it is a treasure trove of material.

Across these sessions, the band moves through the song line-ups of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, building out progressions and melodies, and working through scratch takes that grow into some of the band’s best and most beloved songs. Songs like ‘Dire Wolf’ and ‘New Speedway Boogie’ have a dozen takes each, diving deep into the conception of these songs as they nail the right groove. We hear the band react and reflect between takes, remarking what went right and, more often than not, what was off. It’s these moments that really stand out, showing Garcia, unfiltered and unadulterated, in his role as the band’s undisputed leader. 

On ‘High Time (Complete Track 1)’, Garcia is overheard saying “it’s starting to get too elaborate, we’ll never fucking get it. Just play the song.” And when take two breaks down on ‘Friend of the Devil’, Garcia bursts out into laughter, saying, “pardon me, boys, I just lapsed off into utter weirdness.” In between takes four and five, Garcia voices his frustration, saying, “four times, four times, stupid.” It’s one of the twenty-two outtakes for the song. 

These outtakes are not for the casual listener, but for die-hard fans. The collection of deep-dive studio outtakes provides access to a side of the band that, until now, remained closed off to the world, aside from any on-stage evolutions the band happened to throw out. They give you a genuine feel for the process, often transitioning seamlessly from take to take, showing the vision, and the dedication that went into crafting a sound and a new direction. 

Both Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share and American Beauty: The Angel’s Share are now available wherever you stream music and can be found via Spotify below: