Hippies. Lengthy improvisational jams. Trippy drugs. What is the legacy of the Grateful Dead?
The Grateful Dead formally ended with the passing of its spiritual leader, lead vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia. But the legacy of the Grateful Dead is very much alive.
A legacy is something that we receive from the past. It’s the past turned into the presence. It’s about keeping the past alive for our memories and for new generations.
When we speak of the legacy of a musician or a band we are speaking about the heritage that they are leaving behind for us.
So what’s the legacy of the musical sons of San Francisco, one of the Bay Area’s best bands, the Grateful Dead?
The legacy of the granddaddy of all jam bands can be broken down into 5 distinct parts.
- Studio Recordings
It has been said by some that the Grateful Dead is not a good studio band. That the magic just didn’t happen when you removed the live atmosphere: the audience, the culture, the scene. But one listen to their fifth studio album, American Beauty, contradicts this opinion. American Beauty is just that: a beautiful American tapestry of lush country and folk rock influences, reverberating off the walls of the halls of rock peppered with strains of Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The songs are taut and concise, with a focused cohesiveness that isn’t as common in the band’s live works. “Box of Rain” is particularly striking with its gentle, floating harmonies and bright major chord progression. It’s easy to forget among the thick haze of time and mythology that above all the Grateful Dead were a band of musicians, and their musicianship of the finest quality is never more evidently on display than on American Beauty.
- Live Recordings
The Grateful Dead has a seemingly endless stream of live recordings available. To the non-believer, it all seems like grand excess. Why would you need an infinite amount of the same songs ad nauseum? But this misses the point. Every single performance of each Grateful Dead song is a unique event; a moment captured in time unlike any other. To make sense of the Grateful Dead is to grasp their inimitable improvisational abilities.
The Grateful Dead never repeated themselves. Every song was an experiment that couldn’t be replicated. Experiencing a live Grateful Dead song is as ephemeral as the dust from a shooting star, evaporating almost as soon as you are conscious of it. And yet, the live recordings we have of the band are the living souls of the songs that keep their spirit alive in the present. They are living documents, with the ability to transform our consciousness and move us to states of ecstasy unlike any other.
- The Bootleg Recording Scene
The universe of live Grateful Dead recordings is only in small part captured by the wide array of officially released recordings available. For the Grateful Dead introduced bootleg culture into live music, and we’re not talking about bathtub gin (unless you mean the Phish song). Since the early days of the Grateful Dead, audiences were encouraged to create their own audio recordings of shows. A special “taper” section of the show was even set up by the band to accommodate those wanting to capture the highest quality audio possible.
Today, many bands allow and even encourage fans to make bootleg recordings of their shows, in the spirit of the band that started this tradition, the Grateful Dead. And unlike the old days, when trading tapes required literally mailing the music to other traders, the internet now allows for the instantaneous spread of the music. You can download all of your favorite performances with lightning speed and house them all on your hard drive. But none of this would have been possible without the Grateful Dead showing the way.
- The Contemporary Jam Band Scene
In the contemporary musical landscape, live music is thriving. This is in no small part due to the presence of the jam band circuit, composed of bands that continue to profess the spirit of the Grateful Dead. The primary characteristic of jam bands is just what their name implies: they jam, leading their audience on lengthy improvisational, often instrumental musical voyages that seem to transcend the very bounds of space-time and consciousness. Today, it seems like there are more jam bands than ever, ranging from those that can headline sports arenas – like Phish – to the band playing your local watering hole.
Jam bands inspire such a passionate, devoted fan base largely due to their improvisational abilities. Like great jazz music, a great jam band never plays a show the same way twice. You can capture that on a studio album sometimes, but it works best in a live setting because you get to experience the magical mystical music as it’s actually unfolding before you. It’s the reason that obsessed fans traveled around the country to see the Grateful Dead perform day in and day out. Today, bands like Phish, the String Cheese Incident, and Umphrey’s McGee and many others carry the torch of the Grateful Dead by keeping the jam band spirit alive.
- Members of the Grateful Dead are still Playing
Unless you are living under a musical rock – and I’m pretty sure you’re not – you know that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have been very active in music. In 2015, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart reunited, with Phish’s Trey Anastasio filling the role of lead guitarist and vocalist, for five shows that were called “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead”. The shows received rave reviews and were billed as the closing chapter in the book of the Grateful Dead.
But it wasn’t. Not really. For more shows under the moniker Dead & Company appeared in 2015 – this time featuring Hart, Kreutzmann, and Weir, joined by blues rock guitarist John Mayer. Though Phil Lesh did not participate in this iteration of the Grateful Dead, it was still a fine way to continue to celebrate the spirit of the Grateful Dead’s music.
Will the 2016 Dead & Company shows be the end of the long, strange trip? Doubtful. As Bob Weir has said to The Guardian, “I’m nowhere near done with that heritage and legacy. And this is a new way of approaching it.”
After all, a new way of approaching the music is what the Grateful Dead is what this band has always been about.
– Brian M. Reiser,
Tribut Apparel / Joe Bonamassa Official Blog