While the 71,598 fans who crammed into Giants Stadium had come to see sparks fly between these seasoned rock & roll veterans, what they got instead was confirmation of one act’s miraculous rebirth and further proof of the other’s musical decline.
A record-breaking crowd for this third of the six Alone and Together summer shows, featuring the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, proved the pairing a promoter’s dream. But it is hard to imagine a less likely backup band for Dylan than the Dead, and the musical mismatch proved almost irreconcilable. At the heart of the show’s problem was a seemingly indifferent and anachronistic Dylan, who failed to match the middle-aged musical redemption the Dead have found both onstage and on their album In the Dark.
It wasn’t until the final number — Dylan’s funereal ballad “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — that the show became a successful collaboration. As the song wound down, guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and keyboardist Brent Mydland began singing the minor-key harmony of the song, Dylan launched into a bit of lyric improvisation, and the crowd began clapping along. Finally there it was — that elusive magic the audience had been awaiting all evening.
Giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the advance of time, the Dead took the stage to the accompaniment of the Beatles‘ “When I’m Sixty-four.” But it was clear from their opener, “Hell in a Bucket,” that the Dead are by no means ready to be claimed by the rocking chair. The band still has a stage presence best described as lumpy, but during their two-hour opening set, the healthy-looking Dead acted downright professional. Gone were the interminable between-song tunings, and the jams were mostly restricted to lengthy versions of “Playing in the Band” and “Morning Dew.” Instead, the band plowed through a career retrospective — from early workouts like “The Other One” to most of the tracks from In the Dark.
In their usual play-it-by-ear style, the Dead eschewed car radio classics like “Truckin’,” yet the heavily tie-dyed crowd didn’t care. They cheered Garcia’s ageless guitar solos, didn’t seem to mind Bob Weir’s slightly hoarse voice and actually seemed excited by the nearly ten-minute drum duet between Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The Dead responded in kind: the briskly performed “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Bertha” didn’t sound like the warhorses they are, and Garcia invested lines like “I got no chance of losing this time,” from “Loser,” with an obvious sense of purpose.
In the context of this welcome-back celebration for the cleaned-up Dead, Dylan — dressed in a leather jacket and gloves despite the insufferable summer heat — appeared ill at ease with his status as an elder statesman. As with his 1986 True Confessions Tour, with Tom Petty, Dylan’s set list leaned heavily toward pre-1968 hits, from “The Times They Are A-Changin'” to a ragged “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
While the crowd was supportive of Dylan, some of the loudest cheers went to Garcia’s solo in “All Along the Watchtower,” and few recognized “Chimes of Freedom” or the more obscure “Joey.” Not that Dylan made it easy to recognize them: he delivered many of the songs in the gnarled, tuneless wheeze he’s been perfecting for the past decade.
In backing Dylan, the Dead tried to tag along amiably. Beginning with a thumping, grinding version of “Slow Train Coming,” they turned “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” into a country two-step, complete with a rare Garcia pedal-steel-guitar solo. But for most of the hour-plus set, it sounded as if two different bands were performing onstage. The Dead proved too loose for tightly wound numbers like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and at one point Garcia started into the chorus of “Joey” as Dylan lurched into another verse. Rarely making eye contact with the band, Dylan exhibited the most spark in a passionate performance of “John Brown,” a circa 1962 antiwar ballad that’s only appeared on a few bootlegs.
As the first of two encores, the Dead finally kicked into a faithful version of their new anthem “Touch of Grey.” The throng let loose a roar of recognition — even though In the Dark had arrived in record stores only three days earlier — and sang along heartily with the “I will get by/I will survive” chorus. Dylan, looking out of place, strummed along inaudibly. To paraphrase the title of one of his Sixties compositions, not enough was delivered.
This is a story from the September 10, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.