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Listen To The Music Play: How The Grateful Dead Remain Relevant In 2019

A man looks at a piece of artwork titled "Skeleton and Roses" that was used to promote a 1966  Grateful Dead concert.
A man looks at a piece of artwork titled "Skeleton and Roses" that was used to promote a 1966 Grateful Dead concert.

In the list of last year’s biggest North American concert tours, among the expected big-name pop acts like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars was Dead & Company, a mix of original Grateful Dead musicians along with new players mining the band’s extensive back catalog.

Dead & Company are unique on the list. Other older acts like Eagles or Billy Joel had scores of hits. The Dead rarely charted, and only had one top ten single — Touch of Grey, which peaked at number 9.

But it’s not so surprising. The Dead have been on a winding path (we won’t say “long strange trip”) from counterculture fame to modern appreciation. Besides major venues selling out Dead & Company shows, look at the world of fashion, where the Dead’s aesthetic remains en vogue. The latest single from Vampire Weekend has been cited for its sonic nods to Touch of Grey. And on stage with Dead & Company is none other than John Mayer, who has become a type of style icon.

So what makes the Grateful Dead’s words glow with the gold of sunshine? How does a band formed over 50 years ago remain not only relevant today, but influential?

This episode explains. And while you listen, read on to hear what fans, new and old, have to say.

Eric Renner Brown, 27, is an editor at music industry trade magazine Pollstar.

The Grateful Dead are the Great American Band. No other group united so many strains of American music — from rock to blues to country to jazz to psychedelia — so comprehensively, so singularly, and for so long. Like many, I first fell in love with the Dead through their studio masterpiece, 1970’s American Beauty. In college, I began a dive into their live recordings that continues to this day. The depth and volume of the Dead’s body of work keep them relevant today, especially given the comparatively brief and narrow careers of their classic rock peers. From internet databases of old shows to currently active Dead-adjacent groups including Dead & Company, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, connecting with the Dead’s music has never been easier. But above all, it’s the timeless nature of their songs, from hardscrabble gambling tunes to flower-power jams, that will make the band resonate for generations to come.

Tom Malach, 29, is the guitarist for Garcia Peoples, a rock band from New Jersey.

The last year or so has been the height of my Grateful Dead listening…They were the cutting edge of live rock music, wrote countless great tunes, were prolifically documented, and formed their own sub-culture along the way. The fact that in 2019 you can experience your favorite songs in so many different ways means there is always more to dig in to. With the Dead you can always come back to stuff you like or push forward to hear new moments…One version the harmonies will make you say wow, another the harmonies won’t be good at all but there will be a solo that is a cut above. New moments jumping out in something that is at the same time so familiar is a very rare thing in rock music.

Casey Rae, 44, is the host of the “Dead To Me” Podcast and director of music licensing at SiriusXM Radio.

The Grateful Dead originally emerged in a time of tremendous tension in American society—the Vietnam War and Watergate era. With America currently facing a crisis of identity, it makes sense that the Dead’s influence is once again ascendant. On one level, the Dead serve as a kind of salve, with good vibes and a sense of community that might otherwise seem elusive. But they also have something to teach us about the American experience, warts and all. The Grateful Dead’s music incorporates a broad range of musical traditions that give us a sense of continuity, especially for younger generations. The band’s ethos balances individual liberty with collective responsibility. And it seems that America needs that mediating influence now more than ever.”

Greg Ormont, 30, is the guitarist and singer for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong.

The Grateful Dead continues to influence us and the entire jam scene not only because of their great songwriting and incredible infectious lyrics but also because they taught us to jam with reckless abandon and let the energy of the crowd dictate the flow of the show. They taught us to let the energy of the crowd lead the concert.

Avery Kleinman, 27, is a producer on 1A (and she co-produced this segment).

The Grateful Dead offer me an entryway into the music of the past and the music of the future. I love comparing the oftentimes dozens of versions of Grateful Dead songs on Spotify to find my favorite. Listening to those old recordings feels like I’m traveling to a different era…but the Grateful Dead are also about the music of right now. It’s not just because I can still see most of the original members live. It’s also about the entire music scene that the Grateful Dead gave birth to. There are so many jam bands- ones formed in the 90s and ones formed this year- that cite the Dead as their inspiration. When I go to see a jam band, it’s very, very common to hear them play a cover of a Dead song. They’re honoring the musicians who came before them, but they’re giving the music their own twist. These shows are always filled with a diverse mix of people. Of all the live music I see, jam bands are most likely to have other young fans like myself, but also fans in their 60s and up. I am grateful for the Dead, and grateful to be “on the bus.

Staci Smith, 45, is the host of the “Strangers Stopping Strangers” podcast.

After seeing Dead & Company in 2015 I felt like I was home again – amongst the Deadheads & listening to the soundtrack of my life. After starting the podcast in May 2016, I have met so many people of all generations. There’s a whole new crop of “21st Century Deadheads.” Why the resurgence? In my opinion, some of the 21st Century Deadheads are kids who grew up with the music from their parents, but many are attracted for the same reasons my (and the generations before me) were. They want to go out for adventure (touring) and find a community that is accepting of people who don’t always fit into social norms (“the land of misfit toys”). They are inspired by the lyrics that transcend 50+ years that guide you through life’s ups and downs.

Dan Horne, 41, is the bassist for Grateful Shred

It all re-started with GD50 [Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary concert, Fare Thee Well]. Getting the original band back together and adding Trey [Anastasio, frontman of the jam band Phish] in there to create a really special moment. I think people just remember that the experience of going to shows is an essential part of life! The Grateful Dead are a vocal group first, with songs that move the band in directions that allow for the magical jams to happen. Can’t go to those next level jams without the songs. I became a fan through playing and learning the songs with my musician friends. The Grateful Dead catalog is a place where Rock n Roll musicians can all meet, not unlike the standards of jazz music.

Clay Finch, 25, is the guitarist and vocalist for Grateful Shred

The Grateful Dead have qualities that will always resonate with people, it’s human, soulful and free. It’s jazz and bluegrass and honky tonk and blues and R&B. I saw the Woodstock movie in 7th grade and it totally changed my life. I looked up all the bands that played. I heard “New Potato Caboose” and it was beautiful and vulnerable and very psychedelic.

Produced by Avery J.C. Kleinman & Jake Rutter


Holly Bowling, Pianist; Band Member, Ghost Light; @hollyjbowling

Casey Rae, Host, “Dead to Me” Podcast; Director of Music Licensing, Sirius XM; @CaseyContrarian

David Lemieux, Audio & Video Archivist, The Grateful Dead; @lemieuxdavid

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

© 2019 WAMU 88.5 – American University Radio.

Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5

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