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The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and a bad day for the Metrodome

Note: While looking for something else entirely in the archives of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, I ran across file folders containing documents and correspondence related to the Dome’s first-ever full-scale concert. I don't mean to kick the stadium when it's down, but what I found was too amusing to keep to myself.

In February 1986, a representative from the Minneapolis-based Schon Productions brought a camera to the 4-year-old Metrodome and took some photos to send to a representative of the Grateful Dead, who were kicking around the idea of a “Grateful Dead and Friends” show. The “friends” would be Bob Dylan backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — if all went well.

All did go well, at least until the music started on June 26, 1986. The band’s crew started setting up immediately after Twins tryouts were wrapped up on the 24th. The crew worked nonstop in shifts until doors opened early evening two days later.


In a show of deference to Dylan, the Dead opened, launching into a single-set show with a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimmee Some Lovin’.”

What happened next? Well, it’s all right there in the collection of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission at the Minnesota Historical Society. My favorite is a letter to then-Executive Director of the commission Jerry Bell from ticketholder Karen Hoffman from Mankato:

I walked out of the Bob Dylan concert midway through the show, as the sound quality was terrible. I am a seasoned concertgoer, having seen the likes of Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones from appearances in arenas, concert halls, and farm fields and never have I heard such poor acoustics as I did that night at the Dome.

The commission’s file folders for the show are filled with letters like this one — from enraged fans demanding their money back. And it’s a festering anger. After thumbing through the letters I looked the show up online. There’s a bootleg of the Grateful Dead’s set posted at the Internet Archive, and the comment section is filled with vitriol — the most recent posted on the 24th anniversary of the show in 2010:

Strangely enough, this tape sounds better than my recollections of that awful muddy sounding gig. Sitting 11th row center, the sound was barely tolerable with a prolonged echo that just mixed up the drums and bass into a thick, murky swirl.
Early on, the band looked like they were having an equally difficult time hearing themselves — after all, it was a dome designed to make loud sounds overly cacophonous so as to intimidate visiting teams and their fans. Add to that an extremely hot and muggy day that stressed whatever air-conditioning there was.
Credit the band for giving it their best shot — there were a few moments where they looked liked they were enjoying themselves. By the end of the Dead's long, one-set gig we felt beat up by the sound and the steam.

The real treasure in the commission’s show files is the correspondence sparked by a letter from Grateful Dead sound director Dan Healy to a disgruntled fan where he cushions his refusal of a refund with talk of “interior air density” and a “computerized sound analyzer.” I’ve embedded the letters below (with a couple of additional treats). Enjoy!

You know who came out just fine that summer day? The talent. After tax grosses for the night came to $185,000. Not bad for a concert smack in the middle of that dreadful decade.

And one year later, with all eyes on the soon to be world champion Minnesota Twins, you could still see a Grateful Dead banner hanging up in the stands.

Grateful Dead vs. The Metrodome

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Comments (6)

After getting the run-around first from the Dead's office, where I got my "preferred" seats that gave me a view of exactly one member of the band, and then from Schon Productions, I did get my money back from this fiasco. However, it took a threat to take Schon to small-claims court--and to let the rest of the show's 60,000 or so attendees know of that option--to get it. Schon's Randy Levy coughed up two comps for any Schon Productions show, which I happily redeemed the next time the Dead came to town.

Ironically, as a veteran of hundreds of concerts, this is the only time I've ever had to resort to this, and it was for my favorite band who was reknowned for having the best sound on Earth, thanks in large part to Dan Healy.

The one-set Metrodome show was lame, but as was often the case, the Dead made up for it down the road at Alpine Valley.

Thanks for the memories. I think.

I was also at the Dome that evening, though I arrived late for the Dead's set (I was on Dead time, as we used to call it.) We heard just a couple of songs, then listened to Dylan and the Heartbreakers' set. In both the concourse hallways of the Dome and the upper deck center field seats we had the sound was better than I anticipated given the venue.

As always, Bob's lyrics on his re-worked masterpieces were at times incomprehensible, but that's attributable to his vocal stylings and his revised melodies more than the sound system. I've experienced that every time I've heard Dylan. I do recall that his solo acoustic numbers in the middle of the set sounded fine.

Maybe the sound just sucked on the main floor? This was not the case with U2 in the mid-1990s at the Dome.

I do know that the sound at the Dead's show in 1989 at the Met Center was great, as was the show (before that venue was torn down to create parking for a certain Mall.) The changes they made in the quality, pacing and tightness of their shows, from the early 70s into the late 80s was surprising (though at times we missed the rambling, unstructured 5 hours shows of the earlier years.)

I normally feel that a concert is more of a sure thing than a big time sporting event for the money, as you usually are guaranteed going home satisfied by the performance, unlike in sports. Imagine being able to demand a refund because of the way the Timberwolves, Gophers basketball team, the Vikings or the Twins in the playoffs disappoint!

When did rock and rollers get so spoiled? Next thing you know, people will be demanding refunds for Sly Stone's exceedingly stoned, sloppy and short performance at Parade Stadium in 1971 (like that was a shocker!) Blame it on Reagan and the 80s, when our culture started really going down hill...

I wasn't a huge Dead fan, I kind of liked Tom Petty, and I had never seen Bob Dylan. So why did I go to the concert? Because I knew someone who knew someone and got a deal on the tickets. I do remember that the music was muddy and the lyrics were indistinguishable. I also confess to being somewhat distracted by knowing that a cute guy I had met fairly recently was also in the house, and having his seat number. Sometime during the evening, I made my way from my reasonably good seats to his nosebleed seats. He saw me climbing up the stairs and came down to greet me. Afterward, he walked me to my car. This year will be our 23rd anniversary.

"And one year later, with all eyes on the soon to be world champion Minnesota Twins..."

I don't think anyone's eyes outside of the midwest were on the Twins that year. That series was largely ignored thanks to that little girl trapped in a well sucking up all the news cycles.

And yet...

I had fun at that show even though the sound stunk. For one thing, it was a treat to go to a Dead show and just drive home that night.

Sweaty

The article mentions the weather that day and I don't think you can overstate how awful it was. I've lived here most of my life but that was one of the worst days ever and I didn't have AC at the time.

Two indelible memories of the day:

- My friend and I sat directly behind the stage. Regardless of how bad the sound quality was, the Dead did manage to get all the Deadheads worked up into a frenzy, and we had the perfect view of the writhing mass of old hippies out on the dome floor in front of the stage. It was quite a sight, from our perspective it looked like a living organism.

- Also because we sat behind the stage, I could see that Dylan had invited his friend NBA star Bill Walton to the show. He and Dylan were hanging out and chatting behind the stage during the Dead's set.