Over the 4th of July weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the four surviving original members of the Grateful Dead, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti will be marking the band’s 50th Anniversary by playing a series of shows in the last setting Jerry Garcia ever performed in before passing away in 1995. A couple of recently-added shows in California notwithstanding, this is the final ‘Fare Thee Well’ to one of America’s most iconic bands.
The Grateful Dead was iconic for sure, but was the band one of the most important American bands in history, if not the most important? Let’s take a look at the band’s legacy and try to answer that question.
It Was One of the Greatest Touring Bands of All Time
When you think of the Grateful Dead, you think of a band with a cult following—not a band that captured the American zeitgeist and held it for an extended period. But the band’s touring success rivals all others, and surpassed any other American band during the height of their era.
The Grateful Dead played to an estimated 25 million people over their career—more than any other band in history. In 1998, The Guinness Book of World Records certified that the band had played the “most rock concerts ever performed” at the time with 2,318. The Grateful Dead played to one of the biggest audiences ever recorded for a live event when they performed at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973 to an estimated 600,000 people. In the 1990’s, the Grateful Dead made a total revenue of $285 million off of touring, making them the highest-grossing American band of the decade, and the second-highest grossing band only behind The Rolling Stones. What makes that statistic even more remarkable is Jerry Garcia died in 1995, meaning they achieved his feat in the first half of the decade alone. Simply put, the Grateful Dead was a touring juggernaut.
And beyond the astounding statistics and world records, they played countless legendary smaller venues and other important events throughout the country and world. The Grateful Dead played Woodstock. The Grateful Dead played a series of concerts at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. They were the house band for the Kool-Aid acid tests. They also played an astounding 500 different documented songs during their legendarily improvised concert sets. They also were pioneers and innovators for concert sound. One of the reasons the Grateful Dead was so popular live is because the band just sounded so much better than any other live band. The Grateful Dead were arguably the most important, and most successful live band ever.
It Was The King and One of the Originators of a Musical Era
If you want to be considered the most important American band ever, it’s pretty necessary that you helm an indelible musical movement whose reverberations and relevant contributions can still be felt today, and that’s exactly what the Grateful Dead did with the psychedelic era. Haight & Ashbury in San Francisco was the epicenter of the marriage of psychedelic drugs and music, and the Grateful Dead was the heart of Haight & Ashbury. Hired to play at the Kool-Aid acid tests, Jerry Garcia aptly was named Captain Trips, and the band’s creative marriage of American roots music with nouveau and experimental sounds put it right on the cutting edge of a musical era whose influence would range international, and fuel the dawning of the counterculture.
There were many bands of the psychedelic era that had bigger hits, were more popular, or sold more records. But the Grateful Dead is where it all began. The band’s sophomore album Anthem of the Sun was meant to be listened to while on psychedelics, and married live and studio sounds in a groundbreaking recorded effort. But even though drugs and the Grateful Dead went hand in hand during the mid and late 60’s, even a sober mind could appreciate the inventiveness of the music, and see the creative spark they lit—one that still burns in modern music today.
The Band Mastered So Many Different American Music Genres
As documented above, the Grateful Dead was a pioneering band of the psychedelic era in music, but it began as a blues band. Their first studio record was very much a blues album, and the blues is what the Grateful Dead always came back to during their incredible run. When the appeal for psychedelic music began to trail off, the Grateful Dead went country, and was able to do so with authority since Jerry Garcia had already been working as a steel guitar studio player. Jerry guided the Dead in a country direction and it arguably resulted in the band’s greatest musical era. 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are some of the finest country records ever released, and the band regularly covered songs like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and other country standards in their live sets. Jerry Garcia was also later part of the bluegrass supergroup Old and In The Way.
But when it came time for the band to move on from the country sound, they showed their alacrity and prowess as musicians in the jazz album Blues For Allah. They showed their skills with reggae and funk on Shakedown Street. And in 1987, the rock album In The Dark won the group its greatest commercial success, coming in at #6 on the Billboard 200, and giving the Grateful Dead their first #1 (and Top 40) song with “Touch of Grey.”
Representing nearly all of the diverse and important genres that go into making the wider American music tapestry during its run, the Grateful Dead proved not just its proficiency, but its dedication to distinctly American music forms.
They Had A Major Cultural Impact
The importance of a given artist or band is not always best measured in musical parameters. Sometimes it’s important to consider the cultural impact it had outside of music. And from tie-dye T-shirts, to pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, the legacy of the Grateful Dead left a footprint on American culture like few others.
Some bands and artists have garnered huge followings or inspired stylistic shifts in clothing and hairstyles for a short period, but the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead with Deadheads and beyond is its own subset of American life that has lasted generations. The band’s countercultural identity started in the mid 60’s, outlasted the Regan years, stretched into the Clinton era, and still exists today.
Whether you’re a fan or even familiar with the Grateful Dead’s music, you probably can recognize a Steal Your Face sticker. There are certain words and phrases in the American vernacular that are directly tied to the songs and the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead. And let’s not forget that their concert tours led to the explosion of popularity in other jam bands such as Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and inspired many of America’s modern mega-festivals like Bonnaroo.
What American Bands Were More Important?
Did the Grateful Dead have a lot of huge radio hits? No they didn’t. How about gold and platinum albums? Not so much. Did they win many Grammy awards? That would be negative. But taking into consideration all of their contributions to American culture, who are you going to put above them? Aerosmith? Nirvana? Metallica? Were any of these bands’ impact as lasting and influential as the Grateful Dead? How about Guns ‘N Roses, Kiss, or Van Halen? It almost seems silly to ask. The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Credence, or Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers? Okay, maybe a case could be made for these bands. But the Grateful Dead deserves to be in the discussion, and despite officially calling it quits, their legacy, music, and influence will continue on for generations to come.