Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

30. Dylan & The Dead (1989)

Dylan & The Dead is the sound of one man not giving a shit, and some others trying to follow him.  Recorded during a six-date stadium tour in the summer of 1987, this live album wasn't mixed until the following year, then sat in Columbia's vaults for another few months before eventually coming out in February 1989, by which time Bob's musical rehabilitation had begun with the release of Traveling Wilburys Vol.1.

Of the seven songs here, the most recent are two from 1979's Slow Train Coming, beginning with a funky Slow Train recorded on the 4th of July in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  It's pretty shaky, but the members of the Grateful Dead manage to just about hold things together.  Dylan's voice and phrasing are good and he seems to be enunciating well, but unfortunately it sounds as though he's doing so from beneath a thick blanket, such is the mix.  Its album-mate Gotta Serve Somebody is just as funky, even bouncy, and for a little while the band hit a groove.  But Bob's delivery is tired, lacking the fervour of the original, and he's seemingly unsure how to end the song, leading to a long, drawn out finish with the Dead just kind of petering out.  Guitarist Bob Weir's account of the rehearsals that describes Dylan as unwilling to work on each song more than a couple of times seems borne out by the ramshackle, aimless arrangement.

The rest of the tracks are drawn from much earlier, including two songs that have appeared several times before on official live albums.  The now-standard Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower works pretty well despite Dylan's best efforts to drag it down with lifeless vocals.  He later wrote about this period in his autobiography (or as I prefer to call it, his sorta-biography) how he no longer felt able to relate to his old songs, which certainly explains a lot, although as a professional musician you'd think he could have faked it for all the money he was making off this tour (a reported 70-30 split with the Dead).  The Dead themselves come close to a jam, with a pleasant, if slightly awkward instrumental passage in the second half, but much like the rest of the record, their sound is too watery for the needs of the song.  The most that can be said for the leaden warhorse Knockin' on Heaven's Door is that at least it's not another bloody reggae version.

The worst example of Bob's inability to take ownership of his compositions is I Want You, recorded in Oakland, California on one of the last dates.  His singing is atrocious; enunciation is for the most part non-existent, and his embarrassing fluffing of the lyrics renders them meaningless.  The chorus suffers from too many "I wan-choo"s and it seems he just can't be bothered to even try and do justice to what is one of his loveliest, most yearning pieces of work. The band trot along at a sprightly clip, and there's a nice little guitar solo (though not exactly earth-shattering, as some Deadheads would have you believe), but that watery sound again lets things down.

Directly following this butchering, Queen Jane Approximately comes as a welcome surprise.  This is its first appearance on a live album, and is a real high point.  It's still a tad sludgy and it lacks the optimism of the H61R original, but Garcia provides sensitive guitar all the way through, and Dylan's indifferent vocals are unable to spoil such a wonderful song.  If you were wondering which single track makes D&TD worth getting, it's this.

The one least worthy of your cash I'd say is the ten-minute bore-fest Joey.  This turgid ode to gangster Joey Gallo formerly polluted the exotic sands of 1976's Desire, and here it stinks the place up once again.  Whereas on Desire I felt that it should have been ditched for superior outtakes such as Catfish or Golden Loom, here I'd have preferred it to make way for a couple of more interesting songs from the tour such as The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest or Wicked Messenger, both John Wesley Harding tracks that the Dead apparently wanted to include but were rejected by Dylan.

According to Garcia, Bob made his selections for D&TD by listening to cassettes on a $39 boombox, which may go some way towards explaining the final tracklist.  Like many of his live albums, the songs chosen from what is always a wide pool are somewhat questionable.  Why Knockin' and Watchtower AGAIN?  Why not Chimes of Freedom, or even better John Brown which appeared at a Bob Dylan concert for the first time since 1963?  Like Real Live, it represents another wasted opportunity to let us hear lesser-heard live versions, those songs that usually make concert albums so attractive.

On paper, the coming together of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan sounds like a good match, not least because the Dead already frequently covered Bob's songs at their own concerts.  But instead of an acid-drenched celebration of rock, blues and Americana, what actually results from this great meeting of musical giants (both past their peak, true) is the sound of a jam band not jamming, and one of the most - if not the most - influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century forgetting his words and carelessly mumbling those ones he can remember, his unique gift for phrasing now a thing of the past.

Bob has always benefited from a strong, cohesive backing band, but here it just doesn't work. That they fail to gel is no doubt due to the limited rehearsals, but Dylan's lack of direction and inability to lead is probably why they do this so miserably.  Neither party exudes much energy or emotion; I didn't exactly expect lots of between-song patter, but for those onstage to have at least sounded vaguely awake would have helped to make this live document less, well - boring.  I'm not familiar with any of the Grateful Dead's other music, but the pleasing backing vocals they contributed to Silvio on Down in the Groove are miles better than what they provide on D&TD. Whoever's job it was to produce and mix the album can also take a small amount of the blame for the absence of atmosphere, as there's very little audience noise to be heard, but by and large it's Bob who must take the flak for this wretched little record.

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  1. Wretched little record -spot on! (although to be fair my opinion is based on one WTF listen - never again, never again!

  2. Wretched little record -spot on! (although to be fair my opinion is based on one WTF listen - never again, never again!

  3. Mini - your opening sentence is the most brilliant description of this album I have ever read. Brilliant. Gives me an idea for an Afterword thread - any objection to my referencing it?

    1. Haha! Thanks, and sure, go ahead. Can't wait to see what it's about!

  4. PS - things can only get better. And they do....

    1. Indeed they do. As I said on FB earlier: "Yesterday when I wrote about Dylan & The Dead it was chilly, dark and pissing down with rain all day. Today as I listen to Oh Mercy for the first time, the sun has burst forth. Talk about a frickin' metaphor." :)