25 Years Ago: Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead Release ‘Dylan & the Dead’
Bob Dylan wasn’t exactly at the peak of his career when he released ‘Dylan & the Dead,’ a collaborative live album with the Grateful Dead, on Feb. 6, 1989. In fact, he was pretty close to the bottom of his popularity, influence and creativity. And another live album — his third in 10 years — certainly didn’t help matters.
In 1986, coming off a string of mostly terrible albums (‘Shot of Love,’ ‘Empire Burlesque,’ ‘Knocked Out Loaded’), Dylan played stadiums across the U.S. with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead. The following year, Dylan and the Dead did it again. Most of the set lists consisted of the singer-songwriter playing his classics while the veteran jam band provided backing muscle.
And because of both artists’ reputations for experimenting onstage — with song choices, arrangements and running orders — every night turned out to be a distinct performance. Sometimes audiences got Dylan classics like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue'; other times they got ‘Heart of Mine’ and ‘Man of Peace.’
For the July 1987 shows collected on ‘Dylan & the Dead’ (which was released almost two years after the tour), producers Jerry Garcia and John Cutler mostly stuck to songs familiar to people who buy stop-gap live albums like this. ‘I Want You,’ ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and ‘Slow Train’ (which netted some rock-radio airplay) are among the LP’s seven cuts.
Unfortunately, the album, like many of the shows Dylan and the Dead played together, was a major snoozer. Even though the Grateful Dead were more popular than ever in 1987, scoring a Top 10 album with ‘In the Dark’ and a Top 10 single with ‘Touch of Grey’ (which they played during some tour stops with Dylan), they were basically pushed to backing-band status on ‘Dylan & the Dead,’ leaving most songs to be steered by the ravaged-voice and often aimless Dylan.
The album was savaged by critics but sold well enough, all things considered, reaching No. 37 — a better showing than Dylan’s previous two studio records, ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ and ‘Down in the Groove,’ and the 1985 concert LP ‘Real Live.’ Dylan would return eight months later with ‘Oh Mercy,’ his best album in years. Slowly and surely he’d work his way up to his creative renaissance, starting with 1997’s ‘Time Out of Mind,’ that continues to this day.