The Grateful Dead's last live album had been 1969's Live/Dead, where they had showcased their jam-based style of rock music, with musical improvisation the defining characteristic. Then in 1970 they had made an about turn and released two studio albums of song-orientated, acoustic-textured roots-rock music (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty). These two different styles have both come to define the Dead in different ways, though they seem a long way apart when you compare the above-mention records. With their next album, they managed to bridge the gap between the two styles, and arguably released the first album which encompassed the entirity of their sound.
It was a double live album, and officially is their second self-titled release, but has come to be known among fans as Skull & Roses, named after the cover art. Having been recorded in concert, it featured lots of jams, but they were firmly rooted around the songs themselves, which consisted of both originals (old and new) and covers. The cover material here demonstrated the breadth of the band's style, and included blues (Noah Lewis' "Big Railroad Blues" and Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man"), country (Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee"), 50s rock & roll (Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away") and folk (the traditional "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad"). Of the originals, Bob Weir's "Playing In The Band" quickly became one of their best-known songs. The other two new songs came from the songwriting partnership of Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter. Also notable was their cover of John Phillips "Me & My Uncle", which became their most-played song in concert.
What makes Skull & Roses a landmark release in the Grateful Dead discography is how all these elements are fused together, forming the first record which perfectly showcased the Grateful Dead sound - a stew of American roots music, psychedelic exploration and imrovised jams. Of course they had been perfecting this mix for years in concert, but this was the first album to present it in a neat two-vinyl package.
On a side note, it's worth noting that keyboard player Ron McKernan's role was lessening further. Though he got to sing lead and play harmonica on "Big Boss Man", most of the time his organ was buried in the mix, and on some songs the organ was actually overdubbed later by Merl Saunders. Also, drummer Mickey Hart had begun a three year break from music in February 1971, and so does not appear on Skull & Roses (leaving just one drummer in Bill Kreutzmann).
American Beauty (1970) <|> Europe '72 (1972)
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