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How the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia changed Bob Dylan's live act


If you visit a Bob Dylan concert, you know ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ will not sound at all similar to the pristine version that features on Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan has a reputation for ruthlessly experimenting with the structure of his songs when live on the stage, and fascinatingly, it was Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead that pushed the freewheeling troubadour to alter his mindset.

Garcia helped The Grateful Dead achieve infamy with their ever-evolving live shows, performances that quickly became notorious within the realm of alternative music. However, he was also a Bob Dylan aficionado, and the two men shared a special kind of relationship. While Dylan undeniably influenced the Dead leader, somewhat surprisingly, it would be Garcia who played a more significant impact in refiguring his friend’s career.

Throughout Garcia’s creative lifespan, covering Dylan was common courtesy during his concerts. After his death, his estate even released a posthumous compilation entitled Garcia Plays Dylan, a project that featured performances from 1973 until 1995, and the way he covered those songs mesmerised the man himself.

When Dylan’s career stalled in 1987, The Grateful Dead joined him as his band for a tour, a collaboration that ultimately rejuvenated the singer. In Dylan’s autobiography, he recalled how low he felt before the series of concerts. “Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch the right nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore,” he said.

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However, this run of dates re-energised his love affair with music, and in his book, Dylan remembered: “Miraculously, something internal came unhinged”.

The Grateful Dead’s covers persuaded Dylan to invite them to join his band, and it’s a decision that would transform him artistically. Rather than replicating the original, Garcia would breathe new life into Dylan’s creations, evolving the songs in the process. His imaginative takes made the singer question why he wasn’t doing the same, and suddenly, Dylan began adjusting his performances.

“I can’t say that I’ve made any great-sounding records,” Dylan said to Edna Gunderson in 1997. “A lot of the older songs were just blueprints for what I’d play later on the stage. Jerry Garcia proved that to me. He took a lot of the songs and actually recorded them and sang them a step further than they were on my records”.

Dylan added: “He heard where they should go. I would hear his versions of songs of mine and I’d say, ‘OK, I understand how it should go.’ Then I would play that and might even take it a step further”.

Hearing Garcia experiment with the nucleus of his material proved to Dylan that they could exist outside away from the original he made all those decades prior. Furthermore, by adapting his work, Dylan allowed himself to fall in love with his songs again, taking them into uncharted territories. 

While many Dylan fans would prefer to play the version of his classics that they are familiar with, from Dylan’s perspective, he’d be sacrificing his artistic integrity by doing so, and going through the motions has never been in his lexicon.