Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead were kindred souls on parallel trails: born of folklore and Beat verse, armed with electricity, committed to the reinvention of American song. The Dead recognized that bond at birth; they were playing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” onstage in 1966. And if the Dead were not the boldest of Dylan-cover bands — no great liberties are taken in these live tracks, mostly from the 1980s — they were the purest: swinging through the songbook like real fans, finding workingman’s poetry in Dylan’s most elusive parables.
In concert, the Dead preferred rapport to tension, which means these readings run warm and long, at a Mr. Natural gait. A 1973 version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” rolls like “Truckin” in very low gear. Where guitarists Robbie Robertson and Mike Bloomfield played behind Dylan with cutting pith, Jerry Garcia solos here with conversational poise, accenting the stories with incisive subtlety: silver-toned shots of choler in “Maggie’s Farm”; the honeyed melancholy of his breaks in the long stroll down “Desolation Row.”
Vocally, the Dead divided the songs wisely. Guitarist Bob Weir delivers “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the extended nightmare “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” with appropriate bite, while Garcia’s wounded tenor suits the haunted longing of “She Belongs to Me.” Like Dylan (who closes the album at the mike on “Man of Peace”), Garcia was a singer of limited technique. Unlike Dylan, he always sang with his heart in his mouth. That’s sympathy you hear in Garcia’s warble in this ’81 reprise of “Baby Blue,” not censure.
This set suffers slightly from its concept; a great thing about the Dead’s Dylan covers was the element of surprise, the way they just popped up in a show. You can’t help but wish, too, that Garcia, who died in 1995, was here to take on recent Dylan: “Things Have Changed” or the fire and wit of Love and Theft. This was a beautiful friendship, though — while it lasted.