Written By: Kostya Kennedy
The Grateful Dead burst onto the ’60s scene with a simple, blunt appeal suited to its time: trippy, danceable and intricately melodic music soaked in the peace and love ethos. That was plenty to get people on the bus. Yet it’s the details and idiosyncrasies, namely, what songs from its rich and alluring catalog did the Dead unfurl when, where and how (and in what order!) that has helped sustain the band’s extraordinary survival—for 30 years until the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, and now for a brimming, quarter-century afterlife. The Dead’s primary offspring band, Dead & Company, had 19 dates on its Summer of 2019 tour and recordings of the Grateful Dead’s roughly 2,300 live performances are still listened to voraciously. The Dead have a dedicated station on satellite radio, a medium indulged largely by affluent suburbanites. If you saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac in the 1980s, you might see one on a Tesla today.
It wasn’t just that the Dead, and the Dead pretty much alone, let fans record their concerts. The fact that they let you plug straight into the soundboard, or point a microphone from the crowd, front row, last row, anywhere in between, meant that you could, within limitations, make your own mix: A little more Jerry here, a little less drums there. How much Weir? How much Phil? Even for the vast majority of Deadheads who weren’t taping, the message was clear: We are giving you this music, this experience, it’s yours.
That each night was unique, that you could attend 50 shows in a year or, more modestly, a few consecutive shows in the week the Dead swung through, and never see the same set, never hear the same song executed in the same way, was not a protracted stunt. It was the thing itself. Every night, the unexpected. At their peak the Grateful Dead played more than 125 gigs a year. Playing more than 80 in a year was common to the end. The band did 47 shows in their rickety final six months, the last performance exactly 30 days before Garcia, doomed by heroin addiction, died at 53—his life cut short, his legacy undimmed.
According to setlist.fm the Grateful Dead incorporated more than 520 songs, both originals and covers, into their live shows over the year. The cover song they played most often was Not Fade Away, a rendition of the 1950s Buddy Holly song. The Dead would close their second set with it sometimes and in the later stages of the band’s run that set-closer served as a cue: After the Dead walked off and the house lights dimmed, the audience would keep singing the song’s chorus, “You know our love will not fade away.” Then the five rhythmic claps, and then again “You know our love will not fade away.” The crowd would do this for minutes on end, over and over, however long it took until Jerry and Bob and Phil and the rest of the Grateful Dead came back out to play a few more.
—Kostya Kennedy, in LIFE’s special edition on the Grateful Dead
These photos, from the special issue below, document the journey of a band that has meant so much to so many.