The Grateful Dead was all about the live concert experience. Deadheads know what I mean. If you never had the chance to enjoy a live Dead show, the experience arose from many elements:
The Music – The Grateful Dead are originals, and are widely recognized as the prototype improvisational “jam band.” Think bebop jazz – John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, et al – when listening. The band pretty much played “full tilt” and because of the extended improvisational breaks, songs were never the same twice. A song that they played for 6 minutes one night, they may play next time for 10 minutes. . .
The Musicians – The Dead were a guitar fan’s “dream band.” Jerry Garcia was certainly one of the most talented improvisational guitar players in rock, and Bob Weir was and is an exceedingly creative rhythm guitarist. And Phil Lesh plays bass as if it were a guitar. (In fact, he frequently played a custom 6-string bass.)
The Band’s Attitude – The Dead were always low-key performers. They never postured, posed or pretended while they played, and a Grateful Dead audience was never asked if they were “ready to rock n’ roll.” They never had a lead singer, and all band members were talented instrumentalists. Stage lighting was dark and subdued, and typically psychedelic.
The Scene – The Dead were never a really popular band, so the people who attended their concerts were predominantly “fans.” When 20,000 people were brought together who know the repertoire and listen closely, it opens up the possibilities for great energy, great music, and a great sense of community.
The Setlist – The Dead played a unique setlist at every show, which was usually determined spontaneously during the show (at least in the early years). Songs transition from one to the other during improvisational jams. And serious fans listen for musical clues as the band builds consensus about what song they will play next. Their active repertoire was over 500 songs, and one of the reasons their fans saw so many shows was that one could go to every show for a month and rarely hear the same song twice.
The Dead had their flaws, and their fans know them. But its become a truism, there was truly nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.