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Revisiting the Grateful Dead: America’s Quintessential Jam Band

The Grateful Dead have made an indelible mark on the American consciousness: from the music they wrote and performed to the cultural movements their sound seemed to both embody and inspire. Over the span of thirty years, The Grateful Dead played over twenty-three hundred concert dates, introducing their sound to millions of listeners and immortalizing themselves as one of America’s finest live bands. Today, almost twenty-five years after the death of their lead guitarist and vocalist, Jerry Garcia, their music and the sound they pioneered still touches the hearts of millions of fans—and probably has inspired many of your favorite musicians today. With a storied history now spanning nearly six decades, we thought it would be worth taking a look at some of the greatest moments in the band’s career as well as well as some endearing aspects of the beloved band.

It has been said that “for every studio song the Grateful Dead recorded there is a live version that’s 10 times better.” The band members themselves (who vastly preferred the live music environment where they could “jam” and play off of each other’s direction) have gone on the record lamenting the limitations of creating music in a studio environment. Indeed, the stage seemed to bring out a different side to the Grateful Dead: something organic and spontaneous. The Grateful Dead’s live renditions often easily ran for fifteen minutes and could feature moments of gentle instrumentation—perhaps contemplation—that could build into a tremendous, jubilant crescendo. A great example of how the Grateful Dead seemed to channel each other’s energy, almost preternaturally, is their performance n Foxboro, Massachusetts on July 2nd, 1989.Though the band was in their later years, and without some of their core members such as Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, their rendition of “He’s Gone” is a good example of how they performed a song in a live venue.

From start to finish, this rendition of, “He’s Gone” feels a bit more melancholic and subdued than other versions, such as this live version in Amsterdam from 1972:

Initially the song was written by the band as an expression of relief after the band ousted their manager Lenny Hart, who was embezzling money from the band, but undoubtedly the hardships the band faced (losing McKernan to illness, as well as the addiction and health issues most of the band members faced), may have changed the meaning of the song for the band over the years.

One of the most famous aspects of the band’s sound was their psychedelic rock edge. Many have credited the Grateful Dead with inventing the acid rock sound, which could be described as a rock-n-roll soundscape designed to inform a listener or performer on an LSD trip. A great of example of this sound can be found with the band’s renditions of “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew” on February 24, 1974 at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco:

Nowadays, two songs running beyond forty-two minutes is unheard of at a concert, even amongst the most patient listeners. The languid, thoughtful performance of “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew” truly speaks to Grateful Dead’s enthusiasm for performance. The verse in “Dark Star” does not even come in until nineteen minutes into the song. Indeed, you got the sense the band wasn’t there to pick up a cheque: they were there to express something to their audience. Of course, in some performances the band wasn’t on the same page and they would meander around a tune for fifteen to twenty minutes, but on other night’s they would be tuned-in and move from strength to strength across a tight three hours. Each concert was different. In their early days performances could easily go on for four, five, even six hours. By the 1980s the band had largely settled on a length around three hours, but even then, the time was subject to change based on the mood and atmosphere at each performance.

Indeed, going to a Grateful Dead concert—many of which were affordable—was more than just a concert ticket. It was a social gathering, and for some, a lifestyle. But unlike cults, the Grateful Dead did not espouse any pugnacious or malicious beliefs: their business was the pursuit and cultivation of a sound for each moment and each concert. Some have likened their psychedelic performances to notions of inter-subjectivity and collective consciousness: a connection that does not seem far off considering how the band seemed to pull the audience into its orbit and channel the crowd’s energy into one unifying experience. Ultimately, Grateful Dead was more like a soundtrack for a moment; they were the purveyors of a certain mood. Their ethos was inclusive, and their lyrics often thoughtful and meditative. The band was the connecting link for the thousands of youths, music lovers, and countercultural groups that frequented their concerts. Thus, it’s no wonder the band spawned the Deadhead fandom.

The fans of Grateful Dead, affectionately known as Deadheads, have become a ubiquitous in American society. Almost everyone knows someone—maybe a cousin or brother, or for the younger generations, an art teacher or math teacher, who followed the band around the country. These fans would go from concert to concert, eagerly partaking in the subculture Grateful Dead generated. Here’s a glimpse of what life could be like for a Deadhead:

Many Deadheads racked up hundreds of tour dates with the band, cheering on the band at venues and festivals across the U.S. Often you will hear Deadheads compare the band’s music to a “religious experience.” As one Deadhead in the documentary puts it, “[hearing Grateful Dead live] makes you feel larger than life sometimes… It’s something incomparable to anything I’ve been able to find.” For many people, the Deadheads was a movement that helped shape their way of life and filled a void in an increasingly fragmented America society. Grateful Dead weren’t hocking products or selling their fans and audiences a “brand.” They were simply allowing listeners to partake in a unique, inclusive musical experience.

Another interesting aspect of the Grateful Dead was they encouraged the Deadheads and concertgoers to record their shows on audio cassettes and tape recorders. Since the band’s allure truly came from their live sets, bootleg recordings could most effectively communicate the band’s distinctive style and inimitable energy. One famous bootleg is the band’s performance at Barton Hall, in New York (dated May 8th, 1977):

Some consider this performance to be the band’s greatest performance—a subjective assertion; but nonetheless, versions of this performance are stored in the Library of Congress’s cultural vaults. This particular performance is tight and organized, with very few breaks. In this recording, while the sound quality is excellent, you can tell it’s a bootleg immediately from the live ambience and the proximity of the recording device to the venue speakers (PA system). Recordings such as this one were often collected, traded, and even sold between avid fans and music collectors.

If you are a fan of concert films such as Jonathan Demme’s fantastic film Stop Making Sense (the Talking Heads at the Pantages Theater Los Angeles, 1983), or more famously Gimme Shelter which chronicles the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, you will certainly be interested in Grateful Dead’s concert film Sunshine Daydream, named after one of their own songs and live albums. Here’s a 1978 rendition of the original song that inspired the title of the concert film:

The film, which only saw a full release in 2013, was originally shot at Grateful Dead’s August 27th, 1972 concert at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Oregon. Deadheads often refer to the performance simply as “Veneta.” Here’s an excerpt from the film, which features a beautifully haunting rendition of “Dark Star,” one of the band’s most famous cuts:

Until its edited release in 2013, the film only existed in fragments and bootleg versions occasionally airing at small film festivals. The film is still difficult to find, especially in its full form online, but various digital portions can be found on YouTube. One final video, before we get carried too far down the rabbit hole. This one takes place at Columbia University in May, 1968:

This video is certainly not the finest example of the Grateful Dead’s vocal prowess (though there is some fantastic jazz-inspired guitar and bass), but the video is revealing. It shows the band playing in support of an audience of students at the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement. Only weeks before, dozens of Columbia students had been injured in anti-war clashes with the police. If you watch the reactions of the audience and the intensity of the band’s focus during the performance, the sense of connection between the band and its audience becomes palpable. The listener’s appear transfixed and the band completely dialed in. The video is a fantastic illustration of the band’s almost hypnotizing intrigue.

Ultimately, Grateful Dead were one of the finest bands of the 20th Century. From noodling psychedelic guitar to acoustic bluegrass, jazz, R&B, and driving rock ‘n’ roll, the Grateful Dead ran the gamut of musical genres. They were able to draw upon so many uniquely American musical traditions and incorporate them into their live performances and their studio albums. It may have taken them three or four hours, but each live set seemed to impart upon a listener a unique experience. Their shows featured constellations and intricate networks of songs tied together by expansive instrumental intros and inventive sonic bridges. No two shows were the same: the band would play with arrangement, explore new melodic themes, and quite literally create new music as they performed. Indeed, it was this curious experimentation and passion that seemed to forge the connection between viewer and performer and helped endear the band to so many across the world. The Grateful Dead had practically no radio hits across their thirty years playing together, but they were cherished by their fans and admired by practically anyone who had the luxury of seeing them.

Finally, they changed the game for musicians. With their expansive “wall of sound” speaker set-up which they brought on tour throughout 1974, they challenged musicians to rethink how they could deliver their music and each component of their song (from vocals and guitar to fiddles and organs) to their audience. The “wall of sound” made the listening experience more immersive for concertgoers—it took nearly a day to set up and disassemble. Beyond “the wall of sound,” the Grateful Dead were simply the quintessential jam band. They would find a rhythm and a mood, perhaps channeling the crowd, and explore that with their audience. They improvised and challenged each other to explore motifs throughout their performance. Their shows were as much a dialogue between each band member as a dialogue with the audience.

Ultimately, the Grateful Dead’s transcendental live performances have become something beyond a beautiful musical moment: they are a part of America’s rich cultural history: endearing glimpses of unity between people of all sorts of backgrounds, all united by a shared love for music. And with that, I leave you with one final song: “Ripple.”

Written by Brennan White


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