So Why the Grateful Dead?

So why the Grateful Dead? Well first of all let me clear up a few common misconceptions about them. First of all the Grateful Dead is not a heavy metal band. In fact they are far from it. Their music defies easy description. Were they a rock band? Yes, but that barely scratches the surface of what they were. Mixed in their sound was touches of country, folk, blues, and even gospel. Secondly, while it’s true that they have had plenty of tour rats giving them a bad name, not all Deadheads are a bunch of drugged out dirty hippies. In fact they are known to appeal across all strata of society from working stiffs to highly paid professional people.

So just what is it that makes them so darn fascinating. Well first of all the Grateful Dead may in many ways be the most genuine American musical act to ever take the stage. Jerry Garcia had folk and bluegrass roots, Bob Weir had a country music background, Phil Lesh was classically trained and was hugely influenced by contemporary composers such as John Cage. Deceased founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was a bluesman at heart. All these influences, along with the San Francisco psychedelic experience made for a band not quite like any other.

There is a well-known saying among the Dead community:” There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” Truer words were never spoken and while there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, no two Dead shows were ever alike. They played a different show every night, often just finishing one song and then deciding at that moment what to play next. They were all improvisational musicians who were skilled at just “jamming on stage” and some songs could last for 30 minutes or so if the vibe was just exactly perfect. Their music was a rich tapestry of sound with the musicians weaving in out of each other’s riffs, not stifling their fellow musicians, but adding threads to produce a beautiful work of music. The sound is joyful and happy.

Lyrically, the Grateful Dead employed the services of Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow to write words for their incredible songs. Rather than being overtly political (as many from their time were) or overtly sexual, the Grateful Dead sang of a mythical American past where fortune and luck went hand in hand. Card playing imagery abounds. Biblical imagery abounds. Tragic figures were born, fell, and sought redemption. It was the creation of an American mythology sang in verse.

Early in their career, the Grateful Dead began allowing audience members to openly tape their shows and trade them with their friends. Eventually they began reserving space right behind the soundboard exclusively for tapers. Today many thousands of hours of Grateful Dead music freely circulate with the band’s blessing. You can even find many (as in thousands) of free mp3 shows at archive.org. The notion of allowing taping openly goes against every established business model in the industry, but it can be argued that they blundered into brilliance. By allowing bootlegs to be freely traded, the Grateful Dead built a following for themselves unlike any other. Can you imagine Madonna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, or One Direction encouraging taping?

Lastly they were the real thing. They weren’t assembled by some record producer because they were a bunch of pretty boys who might appeal to a desired demographic. They did their own thing in their own way, without pretension, without ostentation, without worrying about what the cultural mainstream thought of them.

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