Postcards Of The Hanging
Arista Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/05/2004
To anyone who has even remotely followed the Grateful Dead over the years, it is no surprise that they have owed some of their folky success to the style of Bob Dylan, paying the debt by offering covers of many of his songs over the years. It even led to a tour with Dylan in 1987.
But the inclusion of one or two Dylan songs in a typical Dead show was almost expected, even welcomed. Postcards Of The Hanging, a compilation of the Dead doing nothing but Dylan covers compiled over a series of live shows spanning fifteen-plus years, is beautiful at times, but it smacks of overkill.
Having heard enough Dead concerts via tape trading and via Furthur, I could make the argument that Jerry Garcia and company dipping into the well to perform a Dylan cover during a show was like entering a comfort zone. It was a respite from the expectations of fans who were waiting to hear any number of the Dead's songs, and allowed them to explore an already-established artist at their own pace, taking the audience for the ride. It almost seemed to energize the Dead, allowing them to continue on with their own catalog.
My problem, then, is that I often felt like I was left hanging after hearing a song like "Maggie's Farm" or "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," as if I was waiting for the band to kick off a song like "Mexicali Blues" or "Estimated Prophet" to follow. It's a bit off-putting, even when you know what you're getting into before you remove the shrink-wrap from the jewel case.
And, yes, maybe it's nitpicking, but having a disc of only covers almost feels like the Dead, now gone for eight years, is being reduced to some form of a lounge act, albeit a damned talented one. Fact is, the Dylan covers complemented the original material, and vice-versa. While the original songs can stand on their own easily, the Dylan numbers feel like they need a bit of support.
Of course, none of this means a hill of beans to the diehard Deadheads out there, who no doubt raised the toast of "Latvala!" when they saw the track selection, many of which make their first appearances on a Grateful Dead album. Interesting to note, though, that quite possibly the best performance of the disc is "Man Of Peace," which features none other than Dylan himself. And, yes, there are enough strong tracks on this disc, such as "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "Ballad Of A Thin Man" and "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again", to make it worth checking out.
Postcards Of The Hanging is the kind of disc whose intentions were good -- namely, to call attention to the parallels between the Dead and Dylan over the years. On paper, though, it turns out to be one that is worth a casual glance, but is really meant for the completists. Oh -- and of all the bands I'd expect to use the diabolical practice of putting hidden tracks on after extended silences, I never thought that a Grateful Dead disc would be among that list. Guys, how could you?