Genesis

In 1965, San Francisco was the epicenter of counterculture - a home for hippies, Beatniks and psychedelic drug experimentation. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, spread the good word about the new & legal hallucinogen, LSD, through his Acid Test parties. It was here that the Grateful Dead got their start as the house band at Kesey's legendary parties.

Playing at these parties were the five original members

  • Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, songwriter)
  • Bob Weir (rhythm guitar)
  • Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards, harmonica)
  • Phil Lesh (bass)
  • Bill Kreutzmann (drums)

Drummer Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter joined a couple years later in 1967. Various other musicians came and went, but these core members stayed together for the entire thirty-year history of the band, safe for Pigpen who died in 1973.

What's notable about the five founding members is that they all came from a different musical background. Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass banjo player, Pigpen was a blues guy who played the harp and organ, Bob Weir came from folk music, Phil Lesh was a neo-classical composer and Bill Kreutzmann was a jazz drummer. As such, their music pulls inspiration from a lot of genres: folk, bluegrass, country, rock, blues, jazz and gospel. Add the resulting instrumentals to the lyrics of Robert Hunter, and folks, you got the Grateful Dead.  

Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, and Phil Lesh in 1968.

Source: Malcolm Lubliner/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

 

Live/Dead

Their studio albums are great, but the real magic of the Grateful Dead is in their live shows. A vibe of freedom and experimentation defined the experience - they basically invented the concept of the jam band. The typical Dead show was around 4 hours long and the only set thing about it was the structure. Fans could expect two distinct sets with a break in between, a space jam and a typically lengthy encore. Everything else was unpredictable - sometimes the band killed it, other times they were awful. Unlike bands today, the Dead never chose a setlist in advance, nor did they ever play the same set twice and would transition organically from one song to the next.

LSD

You can't talk about the Grateful Dead without talking about LSD. Since the band's genesis at the Acid Tests, the drug was baked into their DNA. At the shows, the band members played on acid and the whole concert experience was tailored to tripping. They played 4-5 hour long sets so the audience would have enough time to dose, come down and get home safely. The shows were defined by long, spacey jams - an aural feast to someone on LSD. And unlike their contemporaries, the Dead allowed their fans to tape the live shows. The acid made the band see their music as a magic gift from the Universe. They didn't see themselves as typical creators and didn't believe in charging people for sharing the magic.

Waiting for the show to start, Red Rocks Amphitheater, 1987

Source: Mark L. Knowles

 

Listen Live

Take your own long, strange trip & listen to some of their best live shows:

  • Cornell 5/8/77 —Both fans and critics regard this show as the best Grateful Dead concert ever (there’s even a book about it). The combination of a career high point, a high-quality sound system and the energy of that night cemented Cornell as an essential part of the Dead archive.
  • The Sunshine Daydream Concert in Veneta, Oregon on 8/27/72 — Emceed by Ken Kesey and organized to benefit the Springfield Creamery, the concert lasted all day and night for a crowd of 20,000 Deadheads.. That’s right, one of the best Dead shows ever was actually a fundraiser for a yogurt farm. Some of the magic was caught on film, from which a documentary was made in 2013.
  • Live/Dead — Released in November 1969, it's the first live album ever released by the band, and it captures a series of concerts from earlier that year. Featuring a 23-minute version of “Dark Star” and other great moments of improvisation, music lovers laud Live/Dead as one of the best live albums of all time, as well as a seminal recording in the history of jam bands and rock music.

Whilst listening, relax and get into the headspace - pour a glass of wine, light a joint (if legal in your state).. Whatever works for you, just let the music take you and look out for these quirks along the way:

  • The band never played a song the same way twice. As you listen, look for the subtle or not-so-subtle differences in each show.
  • During the jam periods, and especially during Jerry’s solos, he riffs on the central musical theme of the song. The longer a jam lasts and the farther Jerry strays from the musical “home base,” the more satisfying it is when he returns and the rest of the band joins him - the 70s version of the beat dropping.

Ode to the Deadheads

The unpredictability of the set-lists meant fans could see them perform three nights in a row and hear different music each night. Grateful Dead fans, i.e. Deadheads, traveled with the band as they toured across the country. Outside every concert venue, Deadheads set up a marketplace called Shakedown Street. As described by one fan:

"The scene was straight out of another time. There was drumming, dancing, dogs and children. Snake handlers, falafel flippers and frankincense vendors. It was a circus with a dark underbelly."

A hippie dreamland to say the least. The purpose of the market was to feed the small city of fans following the band and for some to make enough money to attend the show that night. The huge community of Deadheads are inseparable from the band and their music. As one fan puts it:

"You didn't attend a Dead Show as much as you became a part of it. The band needed your presence as much as you wanted be in their presence. Synergy."

Alpine Valley Music Theatre, Wisconsin, 1988.

Source: Bill Steinmetz Jr./Grateful Dead Archive

 

The Living Dead

With the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 the Grateful Dead stopped touring, but that's not to say you can't experience the Dead today:

  • Dead & Company — A new iteration of the band started by original band members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann. John Mayer took over for the late Jerry Garcia and together, the band delivers an experience that’s pretty close to the real thing.
  • Dark Star Orchestra — A cover band that pays tribute to the Dead and performs in the style of their forefathers.
  • Joe Russo’s Almost Dead — JRAD opts for a combination of Dead songs and more contemporary music.
  • Phish — Not a cover band, more like a modern reincarnation of the Grateful Dead. Like the Dead, Phish is a jam band whose main appeal is their live shows, and they attract similar people, who gather outside shows and trade live recordings with each other.

The Culture

The Movies

The Music

  • Relisten — A digital archive with live recordings of every Grateful Dead show from 1965 to 1998.
  • Jerry Garcia Band One of Jerry’s biggest side projects. Him and his bandmates played funky covers of popular tunes (by such diverse artists as Jimmy Cliff, Chuck Berry, and Irving Berlin) and played more straightforward versions of Dead songs.

The Books

The Interviews

The Merch


Did You Know...

  • When Jerry Garcia was 4 years old, two-thirds of his right middle finger got cut off in a wood splitting accident. His handprint became a symbol of the Grateful Dead.
  • In 1969, the Dead performed at Playboy After Dark, a late-night TV show hosted by Hugh Hefner. The band spiked the coffee with LSD and turned the Hollywood sound stage full of extras from an “artificial party to a real party,” as Jerry said.  
  • At their live shows in 1974, the Dead used the Wall of Sound, which was the largest concert sound system built at the time. One version of the setup required 604 speakers.
  • The Dead, unprompted, pulled up on a flatbed truck and performed a free concert to a crowd of at least 1,000 people during a 1968 street festival in San Francisco. The festival was in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and was planned to soothe tensions between hippies and the police.
  • Ben & Jerry’s named Cherry Garcia after the Grateful Dead’s illustrious leader when a fan suggested it.

The Grateful Dead Community

  • Chestnuts from the Archive — A Grateful Dead pro who breaks down the massive archive of live recordings and highlights the best of the best.
  • Jerry’s Children — A home for younger fans to share their stories about becoming fans of the Dead.
  • Dead.net — The community tab of the official Grateful Dead website offers tons of resources to meet other Deadheads, learn about new music, and bond over common interests.
  • Terrapin Nation — An online forum celebrating the legacy of the Dead.