The Music of the Grateful Dead

The Music of the Grateful Dead

In praise of a music critic who knows his history

I’ve been listening to the music of the Grateful Dead for a couple of decades now. My first exposure to their music is probably when they played their first live show at Chicago’s First Avenue in the summer of 1965. Since then I’ve seen them almost every year they’ve been in town, but I have to say that the time they spent touring in Japan was the best. It was one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had. From 1966 to 1971 they played more gigs in Japan than they did in the United States and that included some of the best performances I’ve ever seen on the road.

It’s the other side of the coin when I think of the Grateful Dead: when I listen to what they did in Japan I often think of the music of the past. In the words of Steve Helyar, “I’m not sure what was so unique about the Grateful Dead during their time in Japan. Perhaps it was in their music. They had a unique set of players with whom they had developed a bond.” Perhaps it was in the way they approached their music and how they presented themselves during the performances. Perhaps it was the way they performed together while traveling across some of the world’s most difficult countries as a band. Or maybe it was an amalgamation of all of those things. Whatever the reason, it’s the music of the Grateful Dead that I remember most from my five-year sojurne with them.

You can hear the difference in the performance of the two groups, you can hear the differences in the live recordings, and in the soundboard recordings. You can hear how the two groups used different instruments during their setlists and how they used instruments to emphasize different parts of their songs. You can hear how the two groups used different drummers and different percussionists.

What you can’t see is how different the two audiences were: with the Grateful Dead audiences were largely young college students. They were students who had come to learn the music and had been exposed to the Grateful Dead on the college level. The audiences with the Grateful Dead were the opposite: these were older, higher income, suburban white guys. They were probably from out of town and had never

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