On first inspection, this looks more like The Zim & the Grim — a mere seven songs, including the warhorses “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” with a garish cover by the famed poster artist Rick Griffin that would look better on a concert T-shirt. For this we waited eighteen months? It’s a pretty safe bet that this souvenir from the 1987 Dylan–Dead summer stadium tour will handily outsell Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove combined. But that has a lot more to do with the Dead’s recent commercial resurrection (not to mention getting two legends for the price of one) than it does with the public’s hunger for a live version of “Joey,” the dirgelike ode to gangster Joey Gallo that no one seemed to like when it appeared on Desire.
In fact, despite the presence of the Dead, the album is an all-too-typical late-Eighties Dylan album, fascinating for the expectations it raises and frustrating in the ways it keeps missing the mark. Yet there’s evidence that Dylan and the Dead had a good thing going, intermittently anyway. The Dead’s elastic rhythms are well suited to the shuffle beat of Dylan’s ’79 sermonettes “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Dylan’s spit ‘n’ snarl vocals notwithstanding, both songs have an unexpected warmth that recalls “Truckin'” more than fire and brimstone. The subtle propulsion of drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, combined with the agitated guitar chatter between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, gives a good boot in the rear to “All Along the Watchtower” — and to Dylan, who sings with surprising animation.
Two other tour highlights were the electric transformation of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and the rejuvenation of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Unfortunately, they aren’t included on the album; instead we get an awkward “Queen Jane Approximately” and a sour reading of “I Want You,” from Blonde on Blonde.
The timing of this release doesn’t help. On subsequent tours, the Dead have retooled such Dylan songs as “Desolation Row,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” with a blend of psychedelic idiosyncrasy and American Beauty gentility that eclipses almost everything on this record. Now there’s an idea for an album: The Dead Do Dylan.
For that matter, Dylan did Dylan better on his fall-1988 tour with the punked-up trio led by guitarist G.E. Smith; he sang the old songs with an improvisatory relish wholly missing on this album. The Dylan-Dead tour was a historic collaboration certainly worth recording for posterity. Dylan & the Dead, though, makes you wonder what the fuss was about. You really had to be there.
This is a story from the February 23, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.