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

The first-ever full-scale concert at the Metrodome was a sonic catastrophe that fans are still talking about today.

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