BOB DYLAN: DYLAN & THE DEAD (1989)
1) Slow Train; 2) I Want You; 3) Gotta Serve Somebody; 4) Queen Jane Approximately; 5) Joey; 6) All Along The Watchtower; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.
This album got such utterly vicious reviews when it came out that it seems to have forever turned Bob off further live albums — with the exception of Unplugged, where he was not really in control of the situation, all subsequent stage experience would have to be experienced in front of the stage, or in the form of bootlegs that devoted fans would cherish anyway and critics would not take note of, unless they were professional dylanologists using those for research.
I cannot say that this decision makes me particularly sad, since listening and re-listening to Bob croak out his past glories with the voice of someone who's spent fourty years too much in the desert is indeed an occupation for the truly faithful (who can afford the time and resources for a bootleg hunt). However, to stay on the objective side, Bob's voice still had some ring to it in 1989, and the negative reaction to the album was overplayed — no doubt, fueled way too much by the disappointing effects of his concurrent studio albums. With at least two, or maybe four, or maybe seven if you hated the Christian stuff, or maybe even eight if you also despised Street Legal, consecutive reputational flops, who would want to be positively attuned towards a live album, even if that live album was announced as a collaboration with one of the few bands everybody could expect to be a great match for Bob — the Grateful Dead?
Actually, critics and fans alike could consider themselves duped: where Before The Flood was truly «Dylan and The Band», the setlist being proportionally divided between the two, Dylan & The Dead is really just Dylan being backed by the Dead. The Dead, of course, did play their own set on that joint 1987 tour, and played it well enough for 1987 (the year of their «comeback» with In The Dark), but there were no plans to release a joint album, and a couple years later somebody must have thought it a great idea to put out Dylan's part on its own — surely being backed by the Dead must be like promoting the Dylan songs to the next plane of existence?
But whoever had that idea, be it Bob himself or some one-dimensional financial manager at Columbia, never realized one thing: the Dead are not «Booker T & The MGs» — they are well worth it when they play their own material, but they are not at all guaranteed to instantaneously add a hundred points to the power of any random song they are given to play. On their own albums, they often struggle with covers, unless the covers in question are traditional folk or country songs, and on Dylan & The Dead, they have a hard enough time just keeping up with Bob's basic needs, let alone add any serious creativity or wild energy. Jerry Garcia does add some nice, fluent and expressive solos to ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ, and the band harmonizes well on key on the finale of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ (which they thankfully do in a non-reggae arrangement), and the rhythm section never really falls apart or anything, but that's about it.
Bob himself is still trying to sing from time to time, and it would be wrong to flat-out accuse him of being uninspired or somnambulant, particularly in retrospect when he's been sounding like that (only hoarser) through more than twenty years of the Never Ending Tour and doing fine. It is interesting that he is not giving up on the Christian stuff: with such a short running length, two songs from Slow Train Coming might seem like overkill, but they are the two best ones, and they are taken quite seriously, even if the repetitive codas to both seem hopelessly overextended. It is noteworthy that he insists on having ʽJoeyʼ in the set, as if provoking the critics (who had always seen the song as the main flaw on Desire's multi-tissue body).
It is distressing that the once powerful, sneering, condescending aura of ʽQueen Jane Approximatelyʼ has now turned into an old man's feeble whine, but it is also almost perversely funny — here is this guy who just spent twenty years waiting for Queen Jane to show up and finally see him, to the point of almost begging her now, but no dice. Looks like the Queen still hasn't gotten sick of all this repetition, after all. And who is more «tired of yourself and all of your creations» now, in the end — Queen Jane or Robert Zimmerman? I cannot help but wonder if Bob himself felt the presence of this unintentional self-irony in his performance.
That said, it would not be correct of me to counteract critical opinion with a thumbs up, because there is certainly no way Dylan & The Dead would be anywhere close to the level of Bob's classic live output — or, for that matter, any Bob Dylan live performance, including the one I've been to personally, dating from before the period when his voice first turned whiny, then wheezy, and then crackly like a bunch of dry firewood. It is particularly unbearable to hear him pull his usual vocal stunts with that voice — for instance, singing directly against the melody on the chorus of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ; it takes superior intellectual effort to understand that he is «experimenting» as usual, rather than simply forgetting that somebody is playing in a certain key behind his back, and why should we waste our intellectual efforts on Dylan & The Dead? It's just a late period live album, good enough for one listen. If you have never been to a Dylan show and are considering whether or not to go, give it a try — this is the closest official sound to a 21st century Dylan show you can get, although his current backing bands are certainly better suited to his needs than the Dead were in 1987 (but the voice now takes even more getting used to).
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