Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why The Grateful Dead Are So Important.

This is originally from thread on the Discussion Board of Golf Club Atlas.

I've heard every criticism in the book about the Grateful Dead.  I'm a huge Dead fan, no doubt.  Yet beyond my obvious emotional reasons for liking the Grateful Dead, I have several logical arguments for why the Grateful Dead were (and still are) one of the most important bands in rock n' roll.  Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide review of the Dead's Two From the Vault gives an overview of what made the Dead so fascinating as a live band:

The preserve of a huge, insular cult accustomed to rendering its very real aesthetic discriminations within a context so uncritical no outsider need pay them the slightest mind, the Dead's music has disappeared into the mythology it engendered. They were a great band. But trying to convince an unbeliever is like trying to tell a stranger about LSD. Great drummers were hard to come by in the hippie era, and the Dead were too discursive to want one anyway--Bill and Mickey rocked out by revving tempo and volume and letting Pigpen take it away. But often the Dead's ruminations have content--they listened more responsively than any other band of the era. And on solos of over a chorus or two, Jerry Garcia stands as the era's most inventive guitarist short of Hendrix and Page. God they were a trip.

     Christgau makes several good points about what makes the Dead so appealing.  The Dead functioned well as a unit, and it is fascinating to watch old videos of the band to see how they interact with one another.  Furthermore, I agree with Robert Christgau's review of the Dead.  I am a devotee of Christgau's writings.  While I don't agree with everything he says, he's mostly right here.  Yet there so many other reasons to appreciate the Grateful Dead.

     The Dead invented the jam-band genre.  When they started playing psychedelic music in San Francisco in 1965, nobody else was doing what they were doing.  There were jazz acts that were stretching out on songs, but all of the major rock acts were still playing compressed, radio-friendly songs.  Bands like the Beatles disdained improvisation (John Lennon called jazz "shit music.")  Yet after the Dead began playing and developed their sound, other bands followed in the jazz vein.  By the end of the 1960s, the typical rock n' roll concert was changed forever, and musicians were now improvising and exploring musical ground never before seen.  While this style went out of vogue in the late 1970s, partially because lesser musicians tried to copy bands like the Dead, Cream, and the Allmans, it has resurged in recent years.  Every single one of the jam bands on the scene now owes something to the Dead for taking rock and adding jazzy, jam elements to it.

     However, the Grateful Dead was so much more than a jam band with decent jazz chops.  Listening to the Grateful Dead is an education in American music.  Each of the original band members came from a different musical background.  Phil Lesh was a classically-trained bassist and trumpeter who was interested in electronic music.  Jerry Garcia and perennial Dead songwriter Robert Hunter were folk and bluegrass musicians.  Bill Kreutzmann had a jazz background, while fellow percussionist Mickey Hart was interested in world music.  Pigpen was a blues fanatic, and Bob Weir would carry on his blues voice after Pigpen's death.  While the Beatles inspired the Grateful Dead to become rock-oriented, the band would always bring the musical backgrounds of its individual members.  That, combined with the psychedelic culture of San Francisco, created a melting pot of all styles of American music.

     Not only did the Dead come from an American musical background, but they played music that came from every corner of the American musical scene.  Robert Hunter wrote folk and rock songs that evoke vivid images of Americana, particularly the allure and troubles of the American West.  The band also paid tribute to their American influences in their cover selections.  They covered Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Derek and the Dominos, Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, the Reverend Gary Davis, and countless others.  They also paid tribute to British artists who were devoted to American music, including Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones.  If you hear a Dead show, you hear the best of American rock, folk, country, soul, and blues, all infused with jazzy improv work that only improved through time for the band.

     The Dead played the best American music, and they preserved it through relentless touring for thirty years and by attracting a devoted following of fans.  When other bands from the 1960s were breaking up or assimilate to the music of the late 70s and 80s, the Dead continued on in their same style.  Sure, the Grateful Dead's sound evolved, and three concerts from 1968, 1972, and 1980 will all sound very different.  Yet this evolution had nothing to do with external trends in music.  When punk rock raged in the late 70s, the band was setting off on long, mellow musical journeys on a nightly basis.  In fact, 1977, the height of the punk explosion, is often considered the Dead's finest year in concert.  The band spent its years exploring new ground, trying new types of music, and constantly trying to improve.

     All the while, the Grateful Dead's fan base remained strong.  No band in American history has a such a large, close-knit, thoroughly devoted group of fans.  The Dead were one of the first bands to play two sets, giving their fans more music for cheaper.  They also extended personal invitations for fans to stay in contact with the band, such as the mailing list request in the liner notes of the "Skull and Roses" album.  This status allowed the band to carry on with the same method for decades and preserve great American music while others were ignoring it.  Furthermore, with the band's unique policy that allowed fans to tape and distribute shows, all of their music and its history remains today for people to hear.  No band, not even the Stones, has had such longevity.

     Even after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the remaining members carry on the musical tradition of the Dead.  There are now scores of Deadheads that have never saw a show but still love the music.  Fans still follow groups like Dark Star Orchestra and Furthur from show to show, knowing that, on any given night, it is possible to hear something they've never heard before and won't again.  With the band's oldest member, Phil Lesh, reaching age 70 in 2010, the band members are still searching and refusing to play the same show twice.  Most importantly, the jam movement of the 1990s has reinvigorated enthusiasm for the Grateful Dead.  Jam bands like Phish, String Cheese Incident, and Widespread Panic will continue to be influenced by the Grateful Dead and carry the tradition into the future.  Bands outside the jam band scene, too, continue to learn from the Dead.  Animal Collective released an album in 2009 entitled "Merriweather Post Pavilion," as a tribute to the Columbia, Maryland venue where the Grateful Dead played many shows.  The improvised and psychedelic ethos of the Dead is important for music in any genre.

     The Grateful Dead changed the live rock concert forever while still playing classic American music.  Additionally, they were the first rock band to incorporate jazz music into a genre that had otherwise avoided jazz completely.  The band defined a generation while continuing to inspire fans to the present day.  The Grateful Dead belongs on the list of great live acts with The Who, Bruce, the Allmans, and the Stones.  Whether you love the Grateful Dead or not, you should realize how critical the band has been in the development of American music.

1 comment:

  1. would like to see another more current article