Grateful Dead

What Made the Grateful Dead So Special?

The Grateful Dead were one of the bands that were most upfront in their advocation of psychedelic usage. Their concerts were first seen to be a safe space to engage in psychedelics, especially LSD. While the band’s music was not that much different from other hit bands of the era, like Big Brother or Quicksilver, their approach to music certainly was.

The band was well-known for their ability to captivate and ‘use’ the audience’s amped-up energy to guide the flow of the concert. They used their psychedelic prowess to create a harmonic atmosphere during which the musicians communicated with the audience and vice-versa.

The concerts provided such a unique atmosphere that people began to return, time and again. These recurring concert-goers came to be known as Deadheads. The culture largely spurred because of these concerts: people would see each other and become familiar over the course of several concerts. Some would get together, become friends, get romantically involved, or have kids.

Then, the parents could bring their kids to Grateful Dead concerts. The kids had a safe space to run around and chase their childhood dreams on the grass while their parents tranced out to the music and laughter.

Grateful Dead Band

What Is a Deadhead?

A Deadhead can loosely be defined as someone who simply enjoys the music of the Grateful Dead, especially the lyrical prowess and musical talent of Jerry Garcia. However, when the Grateful Dead were playing shows across the United States, the Deadhead fanatics reached an entirely unprecedented level.

Some of these Deadheads would follow the band from city to city simply to partake in as many concerts as possible. Many of these folk would form long-term relationships and continue to tag behind the Grateful Dead to soak up as much psychedelic ambience as possible.

The culture became so well-defined that it gave birth to its own rules, ethics, and slang terms. Deadheads were known for being devoted — sometimes fanatically so — to the Grateful Dead and, especially, to the leader of the band, Garcia.

The Grateful Dead & Their Audience & Fans

One of the ways that the band continued to attract and appease their fans was to play a different song set at every show that they played. This ensured that their devoted Deadheads wouldn’t ever have to see the same show twice.

The Grateful Dead was a bit different than other commercialized bands of the era. One of the main differences was the fact that they actually encouraged their supporters and attendees to film their concerts, rather than demanding money for it. Pretty much every one of their 2,500-plus concerts are guaranteed to exist on tape, somewhere.

Even if you weren’t able to actually make it into the show, the area surrounding the venue was always a party. Groups would set up outside of the venues to sell tie-die t-shirts, snacks, psychedelics, and stories. A lot of these people never actually spent much time at the concerts, instead preferring to capitalize on the Deadhead culture and their taste for quality psychedelics.

Grateful Dead Merch

The Vibe / X-Factor

Grateful Dead fans universally acknowledge that there is something intangible that can separate the average musical performance into something much more significant, more transcendent, and more spiritual.

The Grateful Dead is perhaps well-known for having one of the most powerful bonds with their audience. Each show was unique, not only because the set list differed but because the band made a concentrated effort to ‘tune in’ to the feel of the audience and play their music based off of them.

Ken Kesey, author and founder of the legendary Merry Pranksters , described the atmosphere at a Grateful Dead concert quite well. He said that the band didn’t just play the music that they recorded. Rather, they “were playing what was in the air. When the Dead are at their best, the vibrations that are stirred by the audience is the music that they play.”

Band member Phil Lesh reported that their music had a “unique organicity that… reflects the fact that each of us consciously personalized his playing. Each man was… allowing us to meld our consciousness together in the unity of a group mind.”

Mickey Hart, drummer for the band, was alleged to say that the Grateful Dead “weren’t in the music business, they were in the transportation business.” It was believed that the Grateful Dead and their concerts were used by many fans as “a medium that facilitated experiencing other planes of consciousness…. That were usually the province of organized religion.”

The concerts were known to leave people feeling absolutely inebriated even if they hadn’t consumed any substances.

Atmosphere Grateful Dead Concerts

The Evolution of the Deadheads

Not every Grateful Dead fan was the same. As the years progressed, the fans and audiences changed quite a bit.

One of the most obvious transformations was the addition of a 12-step program at the Grateful Dead Concerts. Both the band and the fans were aware of the unpleasantries of overdoses, since psychedelic use was so rampant at the Grateful Dead concerts.

Because of this, the band sanctioned a group called the Wharf Rats to be the band’s sober crew. At each concert, these sober partiers would hold yellow balloons to announce their clear-headed intentions. In a sea of psychedelic-swamped lunacy, the sober folks would hold the night accountable.

The “Second Generation” of Deadheads in the 1970s often made their way into the scene through college or university, or thanks to the recommendation of an older sibling. The 1980s was the era in which people began to realize that they could hawk their Deadhead wares outside of the festivals, making profit off of the path carved by the legendary band through the American states.

As we entered the 90s, the majority of Grateful Dead fans tended to come from wealthy or middle-class, white families. Class and wealth division was beginning to take hold in society and many wealthy youth were seeking a sense of community that they lacked in their personal lives.

Nowadays, Deadheads continue to jam out to recordings and cover bands, as well as bands inspired by the Grateful Dead.

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