The American Beauty Project

The American Beauty Project

In 2007 David Spelman was hired by Arts World Financial Center to curate and produce the American Beauty Project, a two-night event celebrating the Grateful Dead's best-known albums, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead (both of which were on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Rolling Stone readers voted Workingman's Dead as the best album of 1970, ahead of Crosby, Stills and Nash's Deja Vu and Van Morrison's Moondance). The free concerts drew considerable media attention and broke attendance records at the Winter Garden.

Performing their own arrangements of the classic Grateful Dead songs were Jorma Kaukonen (Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane), Dan Zanes, The Klezmatics, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Ollabelle, Toshi Reagon, The Holmes Brothers, Sex Mob, Espers, Jen Chapin, Dar Williams, Tim O’Reagan (The Jayhawks), Mark Eitzel (American Music Club), Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends), Railroad Earth, Catherine Russell, Jim Lauderdale, John Leventhal, Brandon Ross, Andy Statman, and Tony Trischka.

The event has toured North America, and in 2009 had a repeat performance at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as part of The American Songbook series.

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“A New Life for a Dead Classic… the concert lineup, produced by David Spelman (who also played guitar in an instrumental duo between songs), mirrored the eclecticism of the Dead and generally recast the songs.” – Jon Pareles, The New York Times

“The Grateful Dead had its origins in the folk revival, but it took a while for the band to find the right balance between long-form psychedelic jams and small-scale, acoustic country-folk. A diverse group of musicians gathers this weekend to pay tribute to the Dead’s two eureka albums from 1970.” – Ben Sisario, The New York Times

“… brought something of a back-porch feel to the canyons of Gotham's financial district. The perf's real fire came courtesy of acts that like to tear open the original structures of the source material and reassemble the parts afresh -- an approach well-suited to the honorees' legacy.” – Variety

“If you know ‘Uncle John's Band’ isn't some relative's act, this sweet-as-a-sugar-magnolia event is for you!” –New York Post

“…a dream team of performers running through the Dead’s classic 1970 studio albums in sequential order. And, though the all-star ensemble largely shied away from the Dead’s trademark jams, the cast didn’t necessarily stick to their script either, exploring the range of styles the Dead’s music encompasses…. In the left-field department, Dar Williams and Dan Zanes led a South American combo through “Ripple,” while psychedelic-folkies Espers offered an extremely twisted version of “Till The Morning Comes” (perhaps the evening’s most exciting experiment). Indeed, the weekend’s best offerings were also its strangest, ranging from Catherine Russell’s slightly gospel reading of “New Speedway Boogie” to Toshi Reagon’s boogie variation of “Box of Rain” to Jay Farrar’s decidedly alt-country take on “Candyman” (before his appearance the Son Volt leader cited both the Dead and the Sex Pistols as early influences)….In the end, like many free Manhattan events, the American Beauty Project proved as much about New York’s eclecticism as it did the Dead’s music.” – Relix

“Fans of the Grateful Dead and roots music in general are in for a treat this cold January weekend, when two free concerts will be held in the World Financial Center's Winter Garden atrium.”
– Asbury Park Press

“The ‘American Beauty Project’ turns a number of musicians, including Jorma Kaukonen, Ollabelle, Toshi Reagon, the Holmes Brothers, Jen Chapin, and the Klezmatics, loose on two of the Grateful Dead’s biggest albums of the seventies, Workingman’s Dead, on the first night, and American Beauty, on the second.” – The New Yorker

“Jay Farrar, Dar Williams, the Klezmatics and others will hail the Grateful Dead as part of the American Beauty Project.” – MTV News

“In 1970 Bay Area acid-gobblin’ mavericks the Grateful Dead released one of their most important and best-loved records, American Beauty. Besides being one of their biggest commercial hits—yielding radio play for “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Friend of the Devil”—the album expertly honed their early attempts at fusing rock ’n’ roll with bluegrass, folk, and most notably, country. In tribute, a wide array of artists will be performing two free shows over two days, playing individual favorite tracks from Beauty, as well as the similarly revered Workingman’s Dead.”
– The Village Voice

“There's more to the Grateful Dead than tie-dyed shirts and drug-fueled improvisation. Today, a look why their music is more complex than you may think -- and how they inspire today's musicians.” – WNYC Radio

“The 1970 album’s concise folk/country arrangements were morphed into styles ranging from torchy blues steppers to Klezmer rave-ups. Highlights included Catherine Russell’s strutting, bluesy version of “New Speedway Boogie” and the Klezmatics exceptional rendition of “Cumberland Blues,” which was the furthest a field in the reinvention department. The song about beleaguered miners, infused with their rollicking brand of traditional Jewish folk music was a revelation and sent a charge through the big glass room.” – The Downtown Express


      New York Times review

      Upstage Magazine feature