Do line-ups get much better than The Grateful Dead opening up for Tom Petty and Bob Dylan? Almost definitely not. In 1986, the three iconic artists decided to play a limited run of five shows which would immediately assert themselves into the history books.
The Grateful Dead, a band so well known for operating within their own lane, had forged themselves a unique path and often backed away from the overly commercialised scene. The area that they had handcrafted centred around them and their Deadhead fans. Nothing else, according to the group mentality, was relevant so it came somewhat of a surprise decision for the band to agree to an opening slot Dylan and Petty but nonetheless a pleasant surprise.
The stadium shows that The Grateful Dead agreed to take part in saw the triad of iconic acts kick things off in Minneapolis on June 26th before moving on to Akron on July 2nd then to Buffalo on July 4th and then finishing the tour in Washington for two shows on July 6th and 7th which would create memories that would last a lifetime for those lucky enough to be in attendance.
Bob Dylan and Tom Petty appeared the perfect choice to opt for if you could pick anyone to open up for, and their decision to take the slot was met with acceptance from their adoring fans. Another reason which also made The Grateful Dead’s army of dedicated fans accepting about the plan to join forces with Dylan and Petty for the dates is that they only agreed to do four shows rather than the whole 22 tour dates—a decision which proves that money wasn’t their primary motive.
The tour came at an incredibly peculiar time for Bob Dylan. As well as not being revered as the inspirational musical genius that he is today, the singer had yet to really crack the charts and his glow was beginning to fade. His career was nosediving. It was a situation that would eventually land him on a farewell tour alongside The Grateful Dead.
In Dylan’s autobiography, he recalls: “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.” Dylan felt pushed aside and was more than happy to take his place in the history books one of the greats.
Following the tour, Dylan came to a realisation: “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine”. Dylan was ready to retire—sick of the downward spiral he was struggling against but he instead decided to go out for one final jaunt a year later alongside The Grateful Dead in 1987 who had blown the mercurial songwriter away on the tour with Tom Petty the previous year with Dylan and The Dead being a match made in heaven, which re-lit a fire in his belly that is still on fire today.
Perhaps the reason why these two seminal artists were such a perfect match for each other was largely down to their love of experimentation with both Dylan and The Grateful Dead never playing the exact same show twice. The shows they played together the following year were largely sneered at by the masses, but Dylan and Dead loved every minute of there chaotic time they shared together, which is ultimately the only thing a true artist should care about.
Watch footage from The Grateful Dead’s set in Buffalo, below.