When the Grateful Dead came to town: A quick history of the band's Minnesota trips

The Grateful Dead in San Francisco, 1967.

The Grateful Dead in San Francisco, 1967. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Grateful Dead’s connections to the Twin Cities seem tenuous at best: They covered Johnny Cash's "Big River," which mentions St. Paul, and a certain U.S. Senator from Minnesota is a bona fide Deadhead. (No, not Amy Klobuchar.)

But a dive into the Dead’s 15 Minnesota shows, from their 1969 Minneapolis debut to their 1989 finale in Bloomington, reveals historic firsts, a set-ending fistfight, an enduring photographic mystery, great jams, and, 40 years ago this month, an unexpected cameo from a future world-renowned artist -- an incident that's the subject of a new exhibit at the Smallest Museum in St. Paul, Steal Your Face: Keith Haring and the Grateful Dead in St. Paul, 1977.

Labor Temple, February 2 & April 27, 1969

Promoter David Anthony ran the Labor Temple in Northeast Minneapolis as the city's de facto psychedelic ballroom through mid-1970, and the Grateful Dead were the first national act he booked. Despite sub-zero temperatures, opening night was reportedly packed, and the band returned in April. Both shows were recorded by Dead sound engineer and former LSD chemist Owsley Stanley and you can hear before-and-after versions of the epochal "Dark Star" suite; the recording that appears on Live/Dead is from a performance between the two Labor Temple shows. (The April show was later released as Dick's Picks, Volume 26.)

Guthrie Theater, October 18, 1970

With the Dead's chief early concert taper, Owsley Stanley, in jail, their fall 1970 tour, including their sole show at the Guthrie, is barely documented. Except, that is, for one intriguing photograph by Tom Berthiaume. Dead bassist Phil Lesh sings at center stage, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan leans on the band's amps at the rear. Seated at the drum sets, however, aren't Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, but two fashionably dressed young women, more mod than hippie. A call to Berthiaume several years ago yielded nothing more than the memory that the photo was almost definitely taken between the evening's early and late shows, and not during the performance itself. Beyond that he remembered nothing. 

Northrup Auditorium, October 19, 1971

The Dead opened their fall tour at the Northrup at what turned out to be a pivotal moment for the band. For the first time, they appeared without Pigpen, their one-time swaggering frontman, increasingly infrequent organist, and (this century) a recurring reference on Tom Scharpling's Best Show. The show also marked the debut of pianist Keith Godchaux and seven new songs, including instant standards "Brown Eyed Women," "Ramble on Rose," and "One More Saturday Night."

The Dead were already pioneers in the live broadcast of rock shows, but the fall '71 tour opener in Minneapolis was a bold new step in promotion. Warner Bros. purchased time on radio stations in nearly each city the Dead appeared that fall. A lot of promotional time. The Dead took over KQRS for a full five hours, simulcasting their entire three-hour show, the opening set by their country spin-off the New Riders of the Purple Sage (with Garcia on pedal steel), set break interviews, and a "tone poem" by elusive lyricist Robert Hunter. 

Metropolitan Sports Center, October 23, 1973

The Dead had already passed through St. Paul in February 1973 with big jams and another new batch of songs, but the weird mojo was palpable when they hit Bloomington that fall. The show was short (only two-and-a-half-hours) and so were the jams (except an only 15-minute "The Other One"). And it all ended in chaos: The band aborted the set-closing "Casey Jones" midway through when (as the tape seems to confirm) drummer Billy Kreutzmann abandoned his post to tackle a security guard roughing up a Deadhead. Phil Lesh bellows and swears as Jerry Garcia pleads, "Don't beat on our audience, guys!" Bummer. 

St. Paul Civic Center, May 11, 1977

The week before this show, the young artist Keith Haring, who’d just turned 19, began a cross-country hitchhiking trip with his girlfriend to visit art schools. To fund his travels, he sold bootleg t-shirts he and his roommate made, one featuring the Dead's "Steal Your Face" logo altered with Haring's own instantly identifiable psychedelic squiggles. Happening upon the Dead in Minnesota by accident, en route to MCAD, the two enthusiastically bought tickets.

Haring traced his signature style to a particular LSD trip he spent drawing in his sketchbook. The Dead were his favorite band, and a constant soundtrack at his Pittsburgh studio before he moved to New York and found world renown as a pioneering queer street artist. The shirt, which he'd also hawked with minor success at the band's tour opener in Philadelphia, was his first publicly sold artwork. Only three days after the Dead's legendary appearance at Cornell on May 8, Haring witnessed a show as crisp and accessible as any the band ever performed, released in a warm soundboard in 2013 as part of the May 1977 box set.

The Eighties

Every Grateful Dead show was magic for somebody, regardless of how it holds up on tape -- maybe even the seven shows the Dead played in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington in the '80s. Still, almost nobody seems to have fond memories of the band's 1986 Metrodome appearance with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Many say it as the worst-sounding show they'd ever attended. (More than one attendee wrote the band to complain, and Dead soundman Dan Healy responded personally.)

But the Dead used both of their last two Minneapolis shows to try new music. In 1988, they premiered Bob Weir's atonal, Bartok-influenced "Victim or the Crime," maybe the last in their long thread of overly complicated prog-psych songs -- and not a hit with some Dead fans.

In 1989, Jerry Garcia debuted his final major leap as a guitarist, jamming on a MIDI guitar. Garcia's first dash into virtual musical reality included turns on imaginary saxophone, flute, piano, vibraphone, and unidentifiable synth noise. While sounding a bit dated in the 21st century, it also sounds equally far out of time, with an emphasis on the far out -- a place only the Grateful Dead could go.

Jesse Jarnow is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, published by Da Capo in 2016, and the curator of the exhibit Steal Your Face: Keith Haring and the Grateful Dead in St. Paul, 1977, on display at the Smallest Museum in St. Paul, where he'll be speaking this Saturday.

Heads Talk
With: Jesse Jarnow and Michaelangelo Matos
When: 12-2 p.m. Sat. May 6
Where: The Smallest Museum in St. Paul
Tickets: Free