Postcards of the Hanging
First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2002, Volume 9, #5
Written by John Metzger
Throughout their careers, both individually and as a group, the members of the Grateful Dead often paid tribute to Bob Dylan by performing his songs in concert. In fact, as the í80s drew to a close, it was a rarity for one of the groupís shows not to include a Dylan composition ó so much so that fans often took the songs for granted. Thatís a sad statement considering the tremendous influence that the artists had on each other as well as on the music industry in general. And, often the Deadís predictable, but warranted, nod to Dylan was a concertís highlight, especially as the Deadís members struggled to come to grips with their increasingly tumultuous internal and external environments.
At the time, Dylan, too, was going through some rather rough moments, and many have attributed his subsequent comeback, at least in part, to his relationship with the Grateful Dead. After all, it was through this partnership of sorts that he rediscovered many of his old songs and in the process found himself. Unfortunately, the actual collaborations between these artists never fully worked. The full-blown summer tour of 1987 left a lot to be desired, and the subsequent album Dylan and the Dead fared even worse. So, itís certainly about time that the magic between these magnificent legends is rightfully captured.
Thatís where Postcards of the Hanging comes into play. For the record, there is only one track that actually features both Dylan and the Grateful Dead ó a solid, if not staggering rehearsal of Man of Peace. The rest of the selections are all concert performances of Dylanís songs as performed by the Grateful Dead. Yet, Dylan remains an unseen, but strongly felt, presence ó living and breathing within each track.
In a sense, Postcards of the Hanging is a tribute album, but trying to determine for whom yields the same odd, fuzzy sense of clarity as one of Dylanís surreally descriptive lyrics. For certain, no one covered Dylan any better than the Grateful Dead. Those who complain relentlessly about Dylanís voice ó an acquired taste, if there ever was ó can at least tolerate the worst that Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir had to offer. And although the í80s werenít particularly kind to Garcia, the selections represented on Postcards of the Hanging showcase some true vocal (and instrumental) highlights from both parties. In particular, Garciaís tender, touching rendition of She Belongs to Me stands as one of the finest Dylan covers ever. He sings the tune with tremendous passion, wrapping streams of notes from his guitar lovingly around each lyric while the gentle caress of keyboards slinks softly around the edges. Just as passionately, Weir delivers All Along the Watchtower, but instead of a study in serene beauty, he ignites a vehement maelstrom sparked by the growl in his voice.
Postcards of the Hanging also highlights the tremendous influence that Dylan had on the Grateful Dead. The bandís lyrics ó particularly those composed by Robert Hunter ó dug deep into the bowels of folk musicís roots. Old-time songs and characters were frequently reworked, recast, and placed within new worlds full of strange visual imagery that battered the senses with bursts of color. This is, of course, is the same approach utilized by Dylan so fabulously during his mid-í60s period, which, not surprisingly, is the same time frame that the songs the Grateful Dead chose to cover ó as well as when the Grateful Dead themselves ó first took shape. Theyíre all here ó the slow, broiling, unsettled Ballad of a Thin Man; the comedically tragic cast of characters from Desolation Row; the strangely claustrophobic Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again; the literary blur of Just Like Tom Thumbís Blues. Just like the elliptical nature of Dylanís lyrics, the nature of who influenced whom is so intertwined itís impossible to separate Dylan from the Dead. And thatís as much of a tribute to either artist as anyone could hope to hear.
Postcards of the Hanging is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box