Dylan and the Grateful Dead kicked off their historic tour thirty years ago today in Foxboro Stadium on July 4, 1987. The Dead started the affair with a one-set performance that was lackluster, unimaginative, and not a good omen for the upcoming Dylan/Dead set. This was Dylan’s first show in eleven months, and he was rustier than an old dirt shovel in a porous toolshed. This show is only noteworthy because Dylan played his first live versions of “Queen Jane Approximately and “Joey,” and he also performed “John Brown” and “Chimes of Freedom” for the first time since 1963 and 1964 respectively. The next Dylan Dead gig at JFK Stadium in six days was an improvement, setting the stage for a brilliant performance on July 12. Their first joint appearance on Independence Day was nothing to boast about, but Garcia and Dylan have provided many thrills through the years on July 4.
1. 7-4-75 Legion of Mary, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco: This potent group featuring Garcia, John Kahn (bass), Merl Saunders (keyboards), Ron Tutt (drums), and Martin Fierro (sax and flute), played a sensational show, highlighted by “Tough Mama,” perhaps Garcia’s finest performance of a Dylan song. It was a night of scintillating solos from Jerry, especially the last two of “Tough Mama” and one from a poignant version of Jesse Winchester’s “Every Word You Say.” Garcia hammers the blues on “Someday Baby” and “That’s All Right Mama,” and lays down the funk with Merl Saunders on “Boggie on Reggae Woman” and “The Harder They Come.”
2. 7-4-86 Rich Stadium, Buffalo: Appearing on the same bill, the Grateful Dead, and Dylan (backed by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), contributed short sets for the simulcast of the second Farm Aid benefit concert, held in Austin, Texas. After a short, lackluster opening set, Garcia pulled off a heroic second set segment, considering Garcia was feeling ill, and he would lapse into a near fatal coma five days later. The set opened with “Cold Rain and Snow” and segued into “Fire on the Mountain.” Against a rambunctious beat, Garcia worked the fretboard with blazing precision, as if he could make amends for all the missteps of his recent past. Like a mythical figure, Garcia’s guitar playing onslaught continued during a biblical serving of “Samson and Delilah.”
Bob Weir welcomed the national TV audience tuned in to Farm Aid. Sufficiently warmed up from the first three songs of set two, the Grateful Dead segued three of their finest compositions: The Wheel > I Need a Miracle > Uncle John’s Band. The jams were dynamic without superfluous meandering, and the vocal harmonies were superb. In the second set, Garcia, as he did on many occasions, came off as a heroic figure, doing his best work just when you counted him out. After the TV cameras were turned off, the rest of the show fizzled. Dylan’s performance was more consistent than the Dead’s, and he looked fine wearing a long sleeve red shirt under his black vest to go with his bouffant hairdo and dangling earrings. Dylan played twenty-four songs and Petty played eight during this professional performance.
3. 7-4-2007: I’ve seen around 120 Dylan shows, so it’s hard to rank them, but this July 4 celebration in Montreal might be one of the ten best I’ve seen during the Never Ending Tour. There were several lively performances from the recently released Modern Times. Bob played electric guitar for the first four numbers and then plunked the keys for the remainder of the show. The surprise songs of the night were “Shelter from the Storm” and “Chimes of Freedom.” After a moving rendition of “Nettie Moore,” the set ended with “Summer Days” and Like a Rolling Stone.” The encores were “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Watchtower.” Dylan and his Cowboy Band rocked those last four songs as hard as I’ve ever seen them. Dylan was giddy and animated when he came out for his final salute from the audience. Denny Freeman had his best hour as lead guitarist in Dylan’s band. He may be the most underrated guitarist that Dylan has ever employed.