The reigning kings of the jam band world, the Grateful Dead
commands a devoted fan following like none other. Solidifying their place as hippie movement icons early, they played their first show as the Grateful Dead at a Ken Kesey Acid Test, using their inspiration from the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to drop their jug band act in favor of the irresistably attractive rock and roll. With electric guitar on it’s way to cultural-norm status, they embraced electric’s dirtier sound and slipped into their unmistakable sound, quickly gaining counterculture noteriety as a live tour-de-force. Rejecting the usual formula of constant setlists and city-to-city repetition, the Grateful Dead chose to focus on live improvisation, choosing at a whim from a pool of over one hundred songs and leaving room for ambient, spacey soundscapes as well as lengthy experimental jams that ensured that no Grateful Dead
concert was the same. This would be the main draw of the Grateful Dead throughout their entire career; never playing the same thing twice, they were able to quickly amass a large fan following that would quite literally follow them to the ends of the earth to watch them play, knowing they’d be hearing something they’ve never heard before.
The fan base, known as “Dead Heads”
, is an unprecedented musical fan-base whose identity runs far deeper than
musical appreciation. The Dead Heads are a culture all their own. Many would follow the Grateful Dead from show to show all across the country, infatuated with the Grateful Dead’s “play no song the same way twice” approach to music. Also, with the agreement that it remain non-profit, the Grateful Dead was extraordinary cooperative towards fan recordings of their shows. In an era where grandmothers and eight year olds face million dollar lawsuits for mp3 downloads, it seems unbelievable that The Grateful Dead would allow fans official backstage access to record each and every live set, with the sound crew even allowing them to plug directly into the soundboard to ensure studio-quality recordings. Having played an approximate 2,350 shows, almost 2,200 were taped by fans and are now available online
, all entirely band-encouraged. Their love for their fanbase and the developing hippie counter-culture was most apparent through their community contributions, making free food, shelter, entertainment, and health care available to any comers in the Haighty-Ashbury area in their early career, and ultimately performing more free concerts than any band in music history.
The Grateful Dead would eventually feel the crushing blow of frontman Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, going on to play shows but never in the same format again. Though refusing the accept the title of band leader, Garcia was nonetheless the face and voice of the Grateful Dead, his distinctive guitar playing becoming synonymous with the Grateful Dead’s identity. Though often jovial and charismatic publicly, his personal life was fraught with tragedy and self-destructive excess, an emerging byproduct of the times. His drug use would eventually come to destroy him, but due to the prolific nature of the Dead’s live recording, thankfully his musical impact and revolutionary approach to guitar will always live on. It was these personal tragedies that helped give the Dead’s music the deep emotional impact that allowed it a place in history, and it’s that impact that the remaining band mates have tried to live up to through reunions and brand-new bands. The Grateful Dead, though now taking many different forms, has still found a way to live on.
Innovators, record-breakers, and icons, the Grateful Dead will always be synonymous with sixties counterculture and the strive for social justice and equality that came from it. One of the rare musical outfits capable of transcending music to become something akin to a religious experience, the Grateful Dead’s impact on culture cannot be understated, and as a band they’re one of the most hard-working and unique bands to ever play. Just ask any former Dead Head!