With a tribe as diverse as fans of the Grateful Dead, it can sometimes be hard to find common ground beyond our primary shared interest. Who was the best keyboardist? What was the best year? Indica or Sativa?
While you can put ten Deadheads in a room and end up with 12 opinions, there’s one thing most fans agree on: the 1987 tour the Grateful Dead did with Bob Dylan was not their best. The period presented somewhat of a low point—performance-wise—for each act. The Dead, however, were devoted Dylan followers dating back to their 60s roots, so who were they to deny their hero when he asked to join up with them for a stadium tour?
Sure, Dylan may not have been in his best fighting shape, and it’s not like the Dead needed him to tell tickets, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a band that had already at that point played Woodstock, at the Great Pyramid of Giza, and would later that summer score their first Billboard Number 1 with “Touch of Grey”.
Yet, while many agree that the tour—later cataloged on the official live album, Dylan & The Dead, released in 1989—was not the strongest, those willing to do a little digging can find diamonds in the rough. With Jerry Garcia still relatively on the mend off his diabetic coma in 1986, the frontman was re-entering performances with fresh vigor as the band steadily moved toward what would prove to be a late-career peak through the end of the 1980s.
Though the 1987 joint tour may not be the most enjoyable to listen to, these concerts served as a catalyst for something great both from the Dead as well as Dylan, who would emerge in 1989 with possibly his best and most well-received album of the decade, Oh Mercy. That is why it was exciting to see a new Dylan and the Dead bootleg quietly uploaded to Bob’s YouTube channel this week, entitled Honky Tonk Lagoon.
A shared characteristic of both Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead is the massive amount of bootlegs in each catalog. From Dylan’s The Basement Tapes to the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks, there exist massive amounts of unofficial-official content. Though audience recordings of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead’s July 17th, 1987 concert at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, OR have existed for years, the audio uploaded to Dylan’s YouTube page on October 15th represents a sizable improvement in quality as it was taken from a KLCC broadcast of the concert.
Since it was released through the Dylan channel, Honky Tonk Lagoon features only performances of Bob’s originals with the Grateful Dead as his backing band. The Dead are tight on the uptempo blues of “Maggie’s Farm” that starts the collection while the singer is best described as someone doing a bad impression of Bob Dylan.
As is to be expected from shows on the 1987 joint tour, not every song is a winner. The Dead make the most of newer compositions like “Dead Man Dead Man”, which Jerry imbues with a bit of “West L.A. Fadeaway” energy, and Brent Mydland is given the space to shine on “Watching The River Flow”. The gems come as the Grateful Dead get to take on the Dylan songs they’ve co-opted into their own songbooks long ago, like “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “All Along The Watchtower”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, or the Jerry Garcia Band staple “Tangled Up In Blue”.
Though there aren’t any extensive jams, the result is a humbling documentation of a band prostrating itself before its almighty. The excesses of the Grateful Dead were poised to destroy the group by the mid-1980s, resulting in Jerry’s diabetic coma that forced him to have to relearn the guitar. Though they were the ones filling the stadiums, these shows relegated the Grateful Dead to simply being Bob Dylan’s backing band. An experience like that no doubt painted the bright lights of the stage in a different hue, and it’s likely no coincidence that the Dead went on to experience their most profound period of commercial and critical success while also playing their strongest shows of the entire decade soon thereafter.
Just as Dylan & The Dead is meant to be appreciated as a cultural antiquity rather than a document of peak performance, so too is Honky Tonk Lagoon meant to be enjoyed for the effect it had on the Grateful Dead. Stream the 13-track bootleg via the player below.
Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead — Honky Tonk Lagoon (Playlist) — Eugene, OR — 7/17/87
[H/T Rolling Stone]