The standard cant among Deadheads is that the band was never truly comfortable in the studio, that their particular gift could never adequately be captured in such inhospitable environs. But for the first half-decade or so of their career, in some sense, they were the best kind of studio musicians. Anthem Of The Sun and Aoxomoxoa push late-'60s technology to its limits, assaying a recorded simulacrum of their extended in-concert explorations; American Beauty and especially Workingman's Dead are country-rock at its strongest and most enduring -- well-crafted, rough but lyrical, steeped in frontier mythos.
So more likely, the Dead grew weary of studio recording strictures -- specifically, the songwriting imperative. Ironically, these paired 1972 releases are the product of the opposite problem, a surfeit of quality material. Ace offers a talented team-player an extended moment in the spotlight, while Garcia affords an accidental frontman the opportunity to stretch out, free from the burden of leadership.
Bob Weir's contribution to the Dead's cosmic Americana, though crucial, is so hard to pin down, it's tempting to credit a winning blandness, and his solo debut is definitely of a piece. The album's guiding concept is singer-songwriter with the Dead acting as especially responsive session pros. In truth, Weir's voice is too thin, without Jerry Garcia's saving warmth and personality, to carry an entire album, and the production (credited to "everyone involved") is clean-verging-on-anonymous.
That said, the set features some of Weir's most memorable copyrights, and studio discipline foregrounds his strengths as a performer. "Playing In The Band" is more confident and vital than the version featured on the prior year's live double. So, though "Greatest Story Ever Told" and "One More Saturday Night" aren't quite the anthems intended, they rock harder than almost any other entry in the Dead catalogue. And though "Looks Like Rain" portends the overripe sentiment of say, James Taylor, it proves graceful, humane and affecting.
If Ace proffers the Dead with alternate leader, then Garcia's self-titled solo outing (an extract from last year's otherwise overly generous box) re-imagines the group as one-man band. With only Bill Kreutzman's intuitive drumming for support, the singer/multi-instrumentalist attempts a fusion of the Dead's dual in-studio persona. The first half features four further installments in Garcia/Hunter's ongoing American romance, and the second approaches the studio as aural sketchbook.
The results are understandably lax, but Garcia's affable good cheer pervades, and his guitar work is never less than interesting. As a result, the set rarely approaches transcendence but is nonetheless redolent in the Dead's distinctive sleepy good-times. The mournful pleading of "Sugaree" from the songwriting half is an understated triumph, while the elegiac "To Lay Me Down" serves as fitting resolution to ten minutes of piano tinkle and electronic twaddle.
Not surprisingly, what both Ace and Garcia miss most is the other. A song-based distillation of the two could easily have topped American Beauty and even approached their highwater recording mark, Workingman's Dead. But '72 was a time of plenty (and excess); the band had already debuted a handful of quality titles on the 3-LP Europe '72. As Robert Hunter prophetically notes in the liner notes to Garcia, "Songs? No problem. Just lower the bucket and pull out more." Soon after, though, the well ran dry, and Ace, Garcia and their predecessors provided the core material for almost a quarter-century of set lists.